Journalists: Covid council overhaul necessary but mishandled

'Olukorrast riigis' hosts Indrek Lepik and Hindrek Riikoja.
'Olukorrast riigis' hosts Indrek Lepik and Hindrek Riikoja. Source: Siiri Lubasoo/ERR

While the move to replace the leadership of the government's coronavirus advisory board was understandable, the manner in which it was done was not, and seemed somewhat arbitrary, journalists appearing on two ERR radio shows on Sunday found.

At the same time the body – dubbed the scientific council – was likely to see its days numbered due to its perception as a near sock-puppet for the Center Party, once Reform entered office, nearly a year ago.

The council's role and interface with the government, other state bodies, the media and the public was also in need of clarification and rationalization, the commentators found, close to two years after its work had first begun, when the pandemic first arrived in Estonia.

Lepik: Noone fully understands who the council really represents

Indrek Lepik, appearing on "Olukorrast riigis" on Raadio 2 Sunday, said that: "If we consider the government's wider communication, I think it's quite normal that its positions and guidelines still be communicated by the government itself, led by the prime minister.

"What has happened over the last two years is that noone fully understands who the scientific council's positions are supposed to represent and how much credence is given to an opinion piece or interview with [former council head] Irja Lutsar; for want of a better phrase, it is certainly useful to set up a chain of command," Lepik continued.

The titular presenters of Vikerraadio's "Samost ja Aaspõllu", Anvar Samost and Huka Aaspõllu, also questioned the workings of the council and its relationship with central government, with Samost saying that: "I don't mean to say that replacing members of the scientific council is the wrong political choice, but the manner in which the prime minister did this, the practical series of steps that she took, is somewhat characteristic of Kaja Kallas' government."

"If you look at the timing and the outcome, and how both the public was informed and the council itself was informed about it, it all looks extraordinarily ineffective," Aaspõllu said.

Aaspõllu: Need for consistent message understandable

"I can fully understand why the prime minister may have felt that, in order to tone down the cacophony of various messages reaching society, it seems as if the government and the council could have spoken in the same voice, or using similar messages," he went on.

"After all, we have had situations where the scientific council tells the government what to do, and then the government is not in a very good place to choose whether to do what the scientific council says, or to explain to society why they are not listening to the council's recommendations. I understand the motivation, in a coronavirus situation, it is important that messages are clear and so on, but why is it necessary to do it in this way?"

Anvar Samost (left) and Huko Aaspõllu. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Aaspõllu also noted that as a journalist, he appreciated how the outgoing scientific council had been very open with the media, and had given substantive answers to questions.

Aaspõllu said: "Irja Lutsar and the other members talked about all options, were ready to appear in front of the camera, were prepared to comment on those things they had an opinion on.

"As a journalist, I feel somewhat the poorer when we get a different approach to the council as a whole. As a citizen, I also like the idea whereby we have scientists giving their views, and then politicians will justify why things cannot be done as scientists would like them to be. /.../ I understand that the current plan is to leave the debate in the government sessions, or not to hold the debate at all."

Samost: Change understandable if council members appear to be making policy

Samost noted that the actual principle of wanting to refresh the council in itself was an understandable one:  "Not so much for the cacophony of messages, which I don't think was the case, but I can understand the stance of some members of the government, and perhaps the prime minister, when they found that a given member of the scientific council was not so much an expert, but rather was making policy. That was the case. I'm not talking about Irja Lutsar and the virologists. Peep Talving, the chief physician at the North Tallinn Medical Center (PERH), was the one who repeatedly saw the only solution to all questions as being the need to shut down everything."

Meanwhile Raadio 2 journalist Hindrek Riikoja also told "Olukorrast riigis" that Lutsar's replacement, just before the Christmas break, had been a mess, and whether the prime minister had done anything to enable the council and her cabinet to get along better.

Riikoja: Testy relationship between council and cabinet well-known

"We knew that the prime minister and some of the current members of the cabinet did not get the best of things with the scientific council. We were very well aware of the fact that some of the council's tasks were 'floating'," Riikoja went on, questioning whether anything had been done by the prime minister to ameliorate the situation or to codify the council's work, who was responsible for what, who spoke when and on what topic etc.

Indrek Lepik said that noone has a clear idea of who the council is subordinate to and how.

Lepik said: "I started initially thinking instead from the angle that how likely was it that this year we would still see Irja Lutsar continue to give her thoughts and opinions on these topics, primarily in the media."

"She has introduced himself as such a representative figure by so doing. It is a matter of whether she now feels that she no longer enjoys such a strong position," he went on.

"However, I think that in some ways reflects the role that the scientific council has begun to play in the public's eyes. Nobody had any idea of ​​how the Scientific Council would report and to whom."

Scientific Council messages became media-publicized fact before government had had time to digest them

"In this context, Kaja Kallas's steps have been quite understandable, that in the sense of such a so-called political cliché, the scientific council was in some ways considered to be essentially an extension of the Center Party within this government and in governmental communication. In this sense, Kaja Kallas's steps are understandable," he went on.

Riikoja said that: "It is very difficult to dispute the allegation that there were a huge number of messages, and that these messages sometimes became very confusing."

"Usually the rhythm was such that the scientific council met on Monday, proposals were made to the government on Tuesday, but from thence onward, the messages began to take on a life of their own, while the government's decisions were still being made, at Thursday's [regular cabinet] meeting. But really the stupidest aspect of all this is it was all left too late," Riikoja added.

Lutsar's replacement, Professor Toivo Maimets, also from the University of Tartu, is a suitable replacement, he added, noting that he seemed to have taken on board Kallas' view of the council's task as being not so much to monitor and advise, as to work for the government in solving tasks put to it.

The replacement of Lutsar and other leading scientific council members was announced on December 23, while auditor general Janar Holm the same week criticized the practice of the council's recommendations being leaked to the media and general public ahead of the cabinet discussing them (see above).

The council was set up by the Center/EKRE/Isamaa coalition, in office when coronavirus cases first arrived in Estonia in significant numbers, in March 2020.

Health minister Tanel Kiik (Center) said that he only learned of the change in make-up of the council after the order had been given, by the prime minister.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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