Estonia is increasing its coronavirus testing capacity after the discovery of new strain Omicron last week, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communication said on Sunday.
The government is urging all Estonian residents to undergo a PCR test when returning from abroad and to stay in isolation until the result is known. It is hoped this will slow the spread of the new variant in Estonia.
Several other European countries have introduced temporary flight bans with countries in southern Africa where the strain was found last week.
Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Taavi Aas (Center) said Estonia does not have direct flights with these countries so there is no need to introduce a temporary ban.
"The airport, together with the PPA and the Health Board, will increase its testing capacity to be ready in case it is needed," he said, discussing the new strategy.
While testing is free for residents of Estonia, foreigners will have to pay to test on arrival.
Aas said the new strain will be discussed with the government's scientific advisory council in the coming days.
Virology Professor Andres Merits told Sunday's edition of current affairs show "Aktuaalne kaamera" that free testing could be expanded to include foreign visitors.
"One of the characteristics of this virus is that the PCR test actually shows whether it may be an omicron strain or not. It is not necessary to sequence the sample, suspicious cases will come out immediately," Merits said.
The professor emphasized testing is a key defense against the virus because it is "almost certain" that it will arrive in Estonia at some point. But no one knows what its effect will be.
Merits said little is known about the new strain so far except its unusually high number of mutations. It is not known how effective vaccines are against it.
"It's spreading fast in South Africa, but it's very difficult to tell if it's spreading because it has a competitive advantage or simply because there were virtually no cases a few weeks ago," he said.
Estonia's coronavirus rate has fallen rapidly over the last few weeks, falling from "very high risk" to "average risk" on the government's risk matrix. But the relaxation of restrictions may now be on hold due to Omicron.
Minister of Health and Labor Tanel Kiik (Center) told AK the issue will be discussed amongst the coalition.
"At the moment, Estonia is on a downward trend, we are all working to keep the downward trend. At the same time, seeing the [infection rate] rise in Europe, of course, makes it cautious," he said.
Estonia's testing policy
It is not mandatory to get tested on arrival to Estonia.
But due to the emergence of the new Omicron coronavirus variant, the Health Board and government are urging people returning from abroad to get a PCR test on arrival. They also recommend staying in isolation until the result has been confirmed.
This process is free for Estonian residents but foreign arrivals will need to pay.
Testing booths have been set up in Tallinn Airport and at the Port of Tallinn.
More information about coronavirus testing can be read on the government's kriis.ee website.
Editor: Helen Wright