Outgoing members of government Covid council reject Kallas' criticism

Professor Irja Lutsar's send-off involved the usual presentation of flowers.
Professor Irja Lutsar's send-off involved the usual presentation of flowers. Source: Stenbock House

Leading members of the government's coronavirus advisory council reject claims that they were fatigued and that their replacement was the result both of that and of Prime Minister Kaja Kallas' (Reform) criticism of their media communications.

The outgoing council members reject the claims, and say that their role was never intended primarily for media liaison.

University of Tartu Professor Toivo Maimets is set to head up the body, dubbed the scientific council, in the new year.

However, a perceived communication breakdown on matters relating to Covid. Prompted one government source to tell daily Postimees that: "As a result, it was sometimes the case that the government was no longer a decision-maker, but simply held the role of describing the coronavirus situation."

Professor Irja Lutsar, who headed up the council since early on in the pandemic, said that both she and her colleague, Andres Merits, had not been any media communications training, nor was communications their designated role.

Lutsar said: "Our task was to keep informed on what was happening regarding the coronavirus, as well as to keep abreast of the latest research, and to give the government relevant advice."

However, since the scientific council met on Mondays, while the government usually made its decisions Thursdays, on the same day as its regular cabinet meeting and press conference, this led to a lag where the scientific council's opinions had been made public, and the general public, as well as the media, had formulated their own responses, all before the government convened to meet.

Lutsar added that the practice of the scientific council making its recommendations public was a carry-over from the preceding Center/EKRE/Isamaa administration, in office when the coronavirus first arrived.

Conversely, council member and statistician Krista Fischer said that the government also jumped the gun in its criticism of her organization itself.

"I would say that our statements and criticism of the government only reached the media after the prime minister herself had publicly criticized us in the media," Fischer said

Kaja Kallas reportedly said that the scientific council's services were now surplus to requirement, contacting Lutsar on the evening of Tuesday, December 21, and Fischer the following morning.

Kallas had informed both Lutsar and Fischer that they were being replaced due to fatigue, a claim which both reject.

The council had originally planned to meet soon after Christmas, amid the spread of the Omicron variant.

Auditor General Janar Holm has also criticized the practice of the scientific council's recommendations appearing in the media before reaching the government.

Throughout the pandemic, it has generally been the case that scientific council proposals appeared in the media which sometimes differed from or even conflicted with those of the Health Board (Terviseamet), but which led to the proposals nonetheless being widely disseminated by the media and the public, including those with skin in the game in terms of being business owners affected by the coronavirus restrictions.

This period of discussion was later followed by the actual government decision and announcement, generally on the Thursday and Friday, with restrictions usually coming into effect the following Monday.

Communication in general over the implementation of restrictions has been the subject of widespread criticism also.

Health minister: I first heard of Lutsar dismissal, replacement with Maimets, after the fact

Further indication of a potential breakdown in communication, Postimees reported, is suggested by the fact that health minister Tanel Kiik (Center) first heard about the dissolution of the scientific council from sources other then the prime minister.

Kiik told ERR Monday that he: "In reality communicated with the prime minister after she had already made a proposal to Professor Toivo Maimets and notified Professor Irja Lutsar [of her dismissal]."

As to the scientific council's future, Kiik said that: "If we want the Covid-19 Scientific Council to have a good overview and information on the field of health, virology, immunization, then we cannot expand the Scientific Council very widely."

"Perhaps the council can't advise on all world issues - the economy, business, cultural life, etc. The council's focus has been on curbing COVID-19. When dealing with economic issues, business, cultural life, we have separate ministries expert groups, different committees and I think that is also reasonable," he went on.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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