Audit office: Covid lessons should help Estonia prepare for future crises

Social distancing
Social distancing "Stay Healthy!" sign on Tallinn's Reidi Road. Source: Aron Urb/ Stenbock House

The government needs to rethink aspects of the crisis management system so it can better respond to unexpected crises in the future, Auditor General Janar Holm said in his annual report.

On Monday, Holm handed over the report to President of the Riigikogu Jüri Ratas (Center) which focused on the lessons learned during the crisis caused by the coronavirus.

Holm emphasized the report is not intended to drag up the past or find culprits, but so lessons can be used in the future.

"The problems of the functioning of the state that we are currently seeing in the case of the corona crisis are not really corona-specific, as these problems have always existed, and they simply are manifested more noticeably now than in the normal situation. Unfortunately, there has been a lack of administrative and political will to solve these systemic problems," Holm said.

Holm said, when approaching the third peak of coronavirus, it seems that the lessons from the first and second waves had not lost their relevance.

The National Audit Office (NAO) said informing the public about government decisions, restrictions and instructions on what to do should be significantly better organized. 

"When making restrictions or relaxations, we have to think with many heads, but to articulate the decision with one voice," he said, adding otherwise the situation causes confusion.

"In a crisis situation, society clearly perceives when the government seems hesitant, and this is immediately reflected in taking the state power seriously, whether one or another rule is enforced or ignored," Holm said.

The NAO also considers that information should be provided to people through official channels and only when the government's decision is final and why it was decided in favour of one or another measure or restriction, and how it will help to resolve the crisis.

The NAO acknowledges that the tasks and responsibilities of state agencies are sometimes not only vaguely distributed, but also unrealistic. 

It also raised the following issues:

Vaccination without a clear action plan and a flexible response tend to get stuck.

Vaccination in the spring and summer was not so much hampered by a lack of vaccines or people's weak interest, but by the poor and inflexible organization, the report said.

The auditor general expressed concern about this in February 2021.

In the end, the various flexible possibilities to increase the number of people vaccinated were unused or implemented with an unnecessary delay.

There was also a reluctance on the part of public authorities to involve the private sector widely and to accept ideas coming from outside the public system.

Supporting companies in a crisis must be swift, justified, and transparent

In the interests of business confidence, on top of restrictions, the information on what support the state provides must be communicated as soon and as exactly as possible, Holm said.

The criteria for awarding support must be clear: fast feet and quick fingers cannot be the touchstone.

Consideration could be given to implementing support measures through a single channel, for example by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications.

Efforts should be made to ensure that the state support for a local government in crisis, takes into account its real need for assistance. 

Most local governments would have managed without state crisis assistance, the audit found. In the spring of 2020, it was feared that the crisis would grind down a tenth of local government revenues.

The state allocated in two years a total of approximately €182 million to cover the expected decline in the revenue base and additional costs, as well as investments.

However, in 2020 the revenues of local governments increased.

The NAO said the subsidies allocated to local governments for economic recovery in 2020 did not fulfill their goal, as only a little more than 10 percent of this money reached the economy in 2020.

Considering the solid general financial position of local governments, it is questionable how justified it was to continue with similar support measures in 2021.


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Editor: Helen Wright

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