Martin Helme: Heads of hospitals need to stop fueling panic

Martin Helme.
Martin Helme. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Chairman of the opposition Conservative People's Party (EKRE) Martin Helme says in an interview that it is possible Estonia's hospital funding model should be revised to make sure additional funds reach doctors and nurses who are seeing to patients. He also says that politically speaking, it would not make sense for him to leave the opposition as the current government's style is only bolstering the ranks of EKRE supporters.

The coronavirus is widespread in Estonia. Is it not time to cast aside political differences and work together to combat the virus?

No. It is time to admit this crisis is the result of political leadership by the Reform Party and Center Party. This has not happened by accident nor has it only happened once. This is the second time we find ourselves in such a situation inside ten months. They are simply not up to the job and are trying to excuse themselves by suggesting it is unseemly to criticize or replace leaders in a crisis. This means it can only get worse from here.

Medical workers are calling for more resolute action, saying they can no longer stay on top of taking care of Covid patients. What say you to them? What should they do?

As far as medical ethics is concerned, people like Andres Kork (head of surgery at the West Tallinn Central Hospital – ed.) should not be called doctors at this point. It is impossible to discuss anything with someone making such exclamations and statements.

While the government claims it has hiked the salaries of medical workers, it is just so much hocus-pocus. They added a trifling percentage to what is a very low wage. At the same time, bonuses of people working in coronavirus wards were taken away and the money given to hospitals. Hospitals, mind you, not the people working there.

And herein lies the true problem of our medical system. Everyone is having a hard time, including doctors, nurses and patients, while institutions are just fine. It is spending money backwards.

Additional funds and bonuses need to be made available to the people who work in those departments. The funding model needs to be reworked.

The state should have boosted training of doctors and nurses a long time ago, something that has been repeatedly discussed. We are talking about a few million euros here, while we spend dozens of millions on testing and vaccination. The money is ill-spent and works to motivate the wrong things.

I also see that the most vocal representative bodies of doctors, the ones fueling the hysteria, clearly sport a political background. We should first achieve transparency so to speak, determine why they are sending these messages and whose interests it serves.

I understand you have a wonderfully simple recipe for overcoming the virus in Estonia. Three simple steps and it's gone?

We have not arrived in this crisis overnight. A lot should have been done in the summer. However, what is paramount is that we should stop inciting nationwide hysteria.

We can read about the Health Board and heads of hospitals preparing for triage. In other words, hospitals deciding who lives and who dies. Creating this kind of an atmosphere is counterproductive, to put it mildly.

Steps to prepare the network of hospitals should have been taken this summer. We knew there would be subsequent waves of the virus. Therefore, we should have found people and equipment, prepared the hospital system for increased workload. The previous government's plan was for hospitals to be able to treat around 900 Covid patients. Today, we are talking about 600.

But the trend of infection suggests we will have 800-900 patients in the next month. Preparation work has not been done! We will have to do it now.

Secondly, I believe we should sincerely and honestly admit, both on the level of politicians and medical professionals, that vaccination as it was advertised has failed. I just read about a U.S. study according to which the effectiveness of the Janssen vaccine drops to 13 percent in just eight months. We have only beat on a single drum: vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate. That is one reason we are where we are today. No other solution has been given the time of day. We have placed all our hopes on a single card. We can speculate as to who has benefited and who has not. But it is clear that boosting vaccination cannot help prevent pressure on hospitals.

This means other solutions need to be sought. I've been criticized by suggesting that politicians should not talk about medicines. But recent news from pharmaceutical companies Merck and Pfizer suggests remedies are out there. We should find ways to access those possibilities, instead of suppressing or ridiculing such proposals.

We will eventually have to admit that vaccination is not as effective as hoped. I also hoped it would help.

Thirdly, there are effective measures that need to rely on common sense. What we have instead is police dragging people out of shops because their mask is fitted incorrectly.

This is not combating the coronavirus, it is just the kind of totalitarianism we warned against this spring. At the same time, the government resorts to harebrained arguments to justify still allowing the Black Nights Film Festival (PÖFF) to take place.

Concerning the recent incident in Lasnamäe that you referenced, do you think the interior minister should issue an apology?

The interior minister should resign.

We have no civilian control over the police. Look at what chief of police Elmar Vaher permits himself and how officers misuse authority! We have lost the normalcy of knowing that the police are there to help people, not intimidate them. All of it has been gambled away.

Minister of the Interior Kristian Jaani (Center) is in no way fit for office, nor is police chief Elmar Vaher.

Healthcare leaders point to the fact, in private conversations, that vaccination progress is modest in counties where EKRE are popular. Looking at vaccination of young people, it is clearly subpar in Pärnu, Põlva and Võru counties. The party's leaders have never urged people to get vaccinated in so many words, meaning that your supporters do not consider immunization to be necessary. Do you see a clear correlation?

Allow me to answer with a question and ask why do we still prioritize youth vaccination?

It is a non-issue. Young people do not suffer from this disease. We have no recorded Covid deaths among people under 25! We have seen very low numbers of people with other medical concerns hospitalized because of it. Why are we forcing young people to get vaccinated?

Whereas we know young men have a greater risk of side-effects using this vaccine. Therefore, this issue should be dropped. The risk group is elsewhere.

We also need to ask how is it possible that the previous coronavirus wave showed lower infection rates in a situation where there was no vaccination. Over half the population is vaccinated and hospitals are still full to bursting. And infection is more widespread than a year ago. Something is not right here. Increased vaccination has not worked and it needs to be admitted.

Should schools remain open?

Schools should absolutely remain open.

Whereas we should not be concentrating on how many children are vaccinated but instead on how to keep teachers safe. Teachers are a risk group. Another part of the reason why we find ourselves in a crisis – things have been done in exactly the wrong order.

Should Estonia bypass the European Medicines Agency when it comes to making use of new coronavirus medication? It is permitted under extraordinary circumstances.

Of course.

It is a broader question. Estonian doctors and pharmacists need to take a look around and think for themselves in terms of what works and what doesn't.

Why do we rely on the European Union that is a cumbersome and bureaucratic piggy bank? They care about money and power above all, making member states and their citizens dependent.

While it is unavoidable for [Minister of Health and Labor] Tanel Kiik in terms of ideological loyalties, we have lost a great deal in doing so. Lost time, solutions and lives.

If medication that works exist, why look to the WHO or ECDC.

Should we declare an emergency situation?

I am definitely against it.

Yes, we declared one in the previous government. It was a completely different background, we did not know what this virus was. We also lacked amendments that the Riigikogu has since then passed.

However, what is more important is society's preparedness to follow those rules in an emergency situation. This preparedness has been completely destroyed by the current government. Every step to tighten the screws would currently hike tension and stress in society. We should be moving in the opposite direction.

Let us talk about politics. Kaja Kallas recently gave a rather noteworthy interview to Eesti Päevaleht in which she said she cannot resign as that would put Martin Helme and EKRE back in power. Did you feel victorious reading those lines?

I do not feel victorious, a little sad rather. What motivates the PM to go to work in the morning? It is not the desire to get something done but rather to nail someone.

I do not know how long one can last in her office this way, while it is by no means statesmanlike conduct.

But I can also offer Kaja Kallas some consolation. I believe one would need to think long and hard about helping them out this way before elections. They are gambling away their rating and bringing us supporters every day, with a little over one year until elections. They are bolstering the ranks of our supporters every single day.

While one starts to feels responsible for the Estonian state eventually, it would not be sensible to go to Stenbock House today, politically speaking, as the government has steered the country too far into a bog.

Some Reform Party ministers are worrying about fiscal balance, which has caused some measures to be postponed because they are costly. For example, ordering restaurants and bars to close even earlier would have to come with compensation. Is that why decisions are being stalled?

It is not just stalling, it is replacement activity. Instead of avoiding contacts between people using measures that have proven effective, we start counting coppers. And decisions go unmade. In their place, we see restrictions that fundamentally harm society, such as remote learning. At least it allows the government to say it is doing something.

It is a provincial approach to the fiscal situation.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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