Auditor general: Covid recommendations should reach government before news

Janar Holm.
Janar Holm. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The government's scientific council should first provide information to the government before coming out with their recommendations through the media, state auditor general Janar Holm told ERR on Monday.

Holm said that one of the National Audit Office's main points of criticism for the communication between the scientific council and the government was that the government often heard of the council's recommendations through Monday's news shows.

"To then discuss it on Tuesday. The scientific council notifying the public of their recommendations, which naturally leads journalists to the government to ask for further steps. But who can the government then turn to? The scientific council should first make their recommendations to the government to discuss these things and then come out with a joint message," Holm said on Vikerraadio's morning show "Vikerhommik".

The auditor general said another issue is that these recommendations have not exactly been stated officially. "One of the processes for the new scientific council should be that the decisions are clearly stated. And we must certainly know what kind of advice the council is providing," Holm said.

He noted that the National Audit Office has repeatedly told the scientific council and the government that restrictions and other organizational questions have been rather unclear during the crisis.

"What will come, has come and what decisions have been made. There was plenty of confusion. Things are complicated during a crisis: people await information, the government wants to provide it. But incomplete information often causes confusion," Holm said.

He does not think the new scientific council line-up, set to be managed by University of Tartu (UT) cell biology professor Toivo Maimets, will only present recommendations and talking points suitable for the government.

"Those who think Toivo Maimest is a person who does not speak his mind - I have worked with him and know that he is the last person you could criticize of leaving something unsaid if it is important to him," the auditor general noted.

Holm added that making changes to the existing scientific council was up to Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and the government, because they are ultimately responsible for crisis management.

"The decision by [previous prime minister] Jüri Ratas to create this council 1.5 years ago was very correct. It is an excellent example of how academia and the government can cooperate. I have participated in the government sittings and saw how well-informed decisions came because researchers and politicians worked together," Holm said.

"Now, the prime minister has decided that there will be a new scientific council once the current one's contracts are up. That is her decision. The government and the prime minister are responsible for crisis management and I am not the person to judge whether that is the correct or incorrect decision. We can judge that looking back," the auditor general added.

He noted that the National Audit Office does not provide a general assessment for how the government has handled the coronavirus crisis. "We speak of specific issues. And whether or not we were prepared for the crisis. We unfortunately were not, although we already described today's problems a decade ago," Holm said.

He noted that there has been a lack of communication regarding vaccinations and booster doses. "There were also issues with some entrepreneurial benefits. But if I were to rate it as a citizen, we have not done too bad. Compared to the situations to our North and South, we have been an open country so far," Holm said.

Last week, an announcement was made by the government that UT professor Toivo Maimets is set to become the new chief of the scientific council advising the government from 2022, taking over from University of Tartu virologist Irja Lutsar.

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said the scientific council is exhausted from working on the frontline from last March and deserve a vacation, which can also allow them to focus on their regular research.

The final line-up of the council will be announced at the start of 2022.

The scientific council was called together by the government's emergency situation committee on March 20 2020, eight days after an emergency situation was announced in Estonia in response to the coronavirus. The council collects and analyzes data and gives recommendations on restrictions and other viral spread measures.

Toivo Maimets. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR


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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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