In a situation where the healthcare system is overloaded, vaccination is the only way out of the coronavirus crisis, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) said Monday. The prime minister added that those who opposed the vaccination drive on the basis of it infringing human rights were misguided and making a bad situation worse. Ultimately consensus is needed, she said, and also threw the gauntlet down to 'cruel' skeptics of the government's handling of the pandemic, including via an offer for MPs to tour the covid ward of a major hospital.
Appearing before the Riigikogu Monday, Kallas said that: "The constitution explicitly states that no right is absolute."
"Fundamental rights can be restricted, if this is necessary to protect others and prevent the spread of an infectious disease, and that is exactly what is happening at the moment," the prime minister continued.
Paradoxically, it is the self-proclaimed "freedom fighters" in Estonia who are stopping society from opening up again, she said.
"There is present in the Riigikogu a general consensus on, for example, questions of national defense; noone among us would argue against the need to be a NATO member and to invest in defense in order to conserve Estonia's independence," Kallas continued.
"My plea is that we would find similar consensus on questions of the the support of the healthcare system, that noone from among us demonstrates against, attacks or threatens those healthcare workers who protect the health of the Estonian people," the prime minister went on.
Prime minister: Unvaccinated people present risk and so movement should be curbed
The prime minister also said in response to questions from MPs that the government was doing all it could to avoid lock-down; one MP, Riho Breivel (EKRE), said that while his party was not opposed to vaccination either, it was opposed to the pressure exerted on the public to get vaccinated.
Kallas said that restricting unvaccinated people was necessary due to the risk they present.
"Unvaccinated people are having their rights to checked events and activities restricted, because they carry with them a very high risk of infection and, if they are infected, they spread the virus further than immunized people and at the same time have a high risk of both experiencing more severe symptoms of the illness and of ending up in hospital," she continued.
The prime minister noted that whole around a third of the populace had not been vaccinated, unvaccinated people made up two-thirds of the hospital population, while the coronavirus delta strain is considerably more contagious than variants which emerged at the start of the pandemic.
"Vaccines help save lives. Comparing the data, we see that unvaccinated people are 2.5 times more likely to be hospitalized, while unvaccinated people aged 60 and over are three times more likely to die [from the virus]," Kallas added.
The fact that the healthcare system is facing meltdown makes vaccination all the more important, she said.
Kallas: Health minister resigning would not help anything, I will deal with culture minister when she is back from vacation
The prime minister also said that health minister Tanel Kiik (Center) resigning would not help matters.
Kallas said that more important is to: "solve what has developed here".
"Will the departure of the minister solve the situation in hospitals? It will not at the moment. In any case, I have heard this question before and MPs always have the opportunity to take action if they think that the minister has not done his job," Kallas, implying that opposition MPs should table a vote of no-confidence.
Center has been in office with Reform since January, while Kiik was health minister in the previous Center/EKRE/Isamaa coalition, in office when the coronavirus first arrived in Estonia in March 2020.
Of another Center minister currently under fire, culture minister Anneli Ott, who has so far publicly stated her opposition to getting vaccinated against the virus, Kallas said that she, Ott, was on vacation.
The prime minister said she would be speaking to Ott, who as things stand and if she has not been vaccinated would be barred from the very cultural and sporting events which fall under her remit, when the minister's vacation ends, a week from now.
Prime minister offers MPs chance to tour covid ward
The prime minister also offered skeptical MPs the chance to tour a covid ward at a hospital.
"If an MP says that there is no burden on hospitals, I can organize an excursion for you to a coronavirus ward, and then you will be able to see with your own eyes what work people have to do and how these patients suffer from a lack of oxygen," she continued.
"There are those politicians who have cruelly said that in order to protect freedoms, some people must die. I cannot agree with that. This represents and extremely cynical disregard for people and the normalization of the deaths of older people."
"People are not immortal, but they should not die the painful death of the coronavirus. And unfortunately, COVID-19 also endangers the lives and health of others," Kallas added.
In May, Kallas said, the European Commission conducted a Eurobarometer survey on attitudes towards vaccination. "And when you compare that with the levels that countries have now reached with vaccination, it is surprising how it correlates with what was forecast in the spring Eurobarometer survey. We, too, have stayed exactly where one could predict in May based on people's attitudes. The spring forecast said we would come to a stop at 58 percent, and that is the case at the moment," she said.
Kallas to EKRE: 'You don't want to solve crisis anyway'
Kallas had also appeared before the Riigikogu's social affairs committee earlier on Monday, when she called on EKRE to urge its voters to get vaccinated, though then said her own words would likely fall on deaf ears: "As you don't want to solve the coronavirus crisis," noting that EKRE's motives are political.
Mart Helme, EKRE's deputy chair, has said that the government should not engage in "herd tagging," but should have thought more about improving the efficiency of the hospital network instead.
The issue is not about the numbers of beds, more of which can always be created, but about the availability of health care professionals, who are exhausted from work and are taking holidays, she said.
"We have increased the fee for sick beds for COVID by 75 percent, but there is simply not enough staff," the prime minister went on.
EKRE MP: Will Estonia impose Latvia-style coronavirus restrictions?
EKRE MP Uno Kakspeit asked Kallas if Estonia would be likely to follow Latvia's lead and impose an emergency situation and harsher restrictions.
Kallas said under the Communicable Diseases Prevention and Control Act, known in Estonia as the NETS, the Estonian government has the right to take decisions on the crisis without having to declare an emergency situation (indeed the NETS was amended to implement just that – ed.).
While the government would first try to limit the spread of the infection with more lenient measures, Estonia will eventually reaching a point where restrictions as strict as those in Latvia have to be imposed cannot be totally ruled out, Kallas added.
Reform MP: What can be done to alleviate public fears over vaccine side-effects?
Margit Sutrop, an MP from Kallas' own party, Reform, and also a professor of philosophy, asked the prime minister what could be done to alleviate public fears over alleged side-effects of the coronavirus vaccination – currently three EU-approved manufacturers' products are being administered in Estonia – given this was one of the main stumbling blocks in Estonia reaching full, or at least fuller, vaccination coverage.
Kallas said that these fears can be approached on a scientific basis, and in particular, doctors should explain both the coronavirus and vaccination issues to their patients. "I have repeatedly stated that family doctors can show that you should be more afraid of the disease, than of the vaccine," Kallas said.
A new raft of coronavirus restrictions entered into force on Monday, and will be valid until at least January. The new rules include the removal of proof of recent negative test results as a basis for gaining access to a whole range of different activities and events, and tightened up the requirement to wear a face-mask in a public place.
This article was updated to include the prime minister's comments on Tanel Kiik and Anneli Ott, and questions from Uno Kakspeit and Margit Sutrop.
Editor: Andrew Whyte