Under-fire minister: Covid test procurement was not my decision alone
Minister of Education Liina Kersna (Reform) says that a quick procurement of rapid coronavirus test kits for schools was made in the interests of keeping children in school at a time, in the fall of 2021, when Covid rates were high and getting higher, and was a joint cabinet decision and not hers alone.
The finance ministry has issued proceedings against the education minister over the issue, while leader of the opposition Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) is attempting to set up a motion of no-confidence in Kersna as minister.
Appearing on ERR webcast "Otse uudistemajast" Wednesday morning, Kersna, who immediately after the interview was due to testify before the Ministry of Finance, which has issued misdemeanor proceedings against her, said that: "On October 14 2021, the government instructed the Ministry of Social Affairs that all children need to be tested because the virus levels were rising.
"Synlab, a partner company of the Ministry of Social Affairs, had been testing among children in the Viimsi school using the 'lollipop' method, and feedback was forthcoming from there that this had worked very well," she continued.
"On October 19, Synlab confirmed that they would be able to test all children. They had selected schools with high levels of infection, in conjunction with the Health Board, to carry out a screening project. On 25 October, it became clear that there were only 12 schools remaining in this screening project - extensive testing of students had transformed into a small-scale research project, one which would not have helped keep the schools open."
"Once the government realized the situation with the testing project on October 26, I suggested that we carry out the testing ourselves. There was very little time left; three working days and two weekends. This was a very strong measure, to keep schoolchildren at school and to curb the spread of the virus," Kersna continued.
Kersna added that signing a contract with one partner happened at a time when there were around 2,000 new Covid infections per day and widespread concern among healthcare experts, while at the same time, the bad experience of blanket schools closures in the previous year meant that this was out of the question.
"I did not agree that we would affect 170,000 children and their future," Kersna said.
Kersna: Procurement was conducted by the government as a whole
Kersna rejected claims that she had benefited from the procurement, adding that the head of her ministry's legal department had previously worked at the Supreme Court and at the National Audit Office (Riigikontroll).
Public administration minister Jaak Aab was also in charge of government decisions on the matter, while the rest of the cabinet was also involved, Kersna said, adding that the government had instructed her to conclude as short a contract term for the rapid testing as possible, at the most one month, and with just one company.
She added that she had repeatedly told the education ministry's officials to consult with the finance ministry, while the latter had sometimes stated – at video-linked meetings – that what the education ministry was dubious, without providing an alternative course of action.
"Their idea would probably have been to have extended the break by two weeks, and start calmly preparing for the procurement," she said.
Additionally, going to distance learning as in 2020 was not favorable, on the grounds that once embarked upon, it was difficult to turn back on, while there would be no guarantee that Covid infection rates would have begun to fall in the meantime.
Essentially, the decisions, from her perspective, were: "To guarantee the constitutional rights of 170,000 children," she said.
The finance ministry announced earlier this week that it had brought misdemeanor proceedings against Kersna, while EKRE leader Martin Helme is in the process of garnering support in the Riigikogu for the vote of no-confidence - meaning a sufficient number of signatures are required for the motion to go ahead.
The initial tender in October of 2021 contacted only a single bidder and cost the ministry €5.1 million for two million tests. A second contractor was also found via an unannounced negotiated public tender; while the price-tag had now come down to €2.37 million for 2.1 million tests, an audit of the education ministry's conduct found that the second tender should have been handled as a standard public procurement, since the unforeseen need criterion was no longer present.
Minister: Future of coalition not clear at this point either
As to the current government split between Reform and Center, ostensibly on the matter of the family benefits bill being processed at the Riigikogu, Kersna conceded that it is not entirely beyond the realm of possibility that she will no longer be a minister a week from now.
"Yes, that is not at all certain," Kersna told interviewer Anvar Samost.
"There are major substantive issues with the child benefits bill, which must be resisted. The Reform Party Riigikogu group has submitted proposals to the Center Party today, on how to proceed together, but I am not overly optimistic," she went on.
"Essentially, we do not have any government today, especially at the Riigikogu. We are not acting as a minority government now, as [Reform Riigikogu whip] Mart Võrklaev has said LINK.
"Relations are always bilateral, but as a member of the government, I do not remember a single time when the Center Party had raised the issue of raising child benefits before," she went on.
"Looking at how the [opposition party] Isamaa's election pledges are nowadays being implemented one-by-one, in the hands of the Center Party, the question arises why? There can't be a rational reason, there must be other reasons," Kersna said, adding that the situation mirrors that experienced with Covid in that it is rapidly changing.
Government ministers do not sit at the Riigikogu.
As for her own position, Kersna added that: "I do not rule out the possibility that I will see a motion of no-confidence today or tomorrow."
Kersna: I had to ring changes when entering office
A coronavirus-themed action plan for 2022-2023 which had been drawn up by government officials gave her the impression that they didn't really know what to do, Kersna added, referring to changes she made immediately upon entering office in the ministry, early in 2021.
For instance, the issue of proper ventilation as a Covid counter-measure was given scant coverage in the action plan, she said, while in the meantime, no real progress had been made.
Changes in officials were necessary to bring about change in the pandemic situation in relation to schools and education, she added. "I would not be able to sleep at night if I had overlooked these things."
Nonetheless, with regard to the new academic year starting in September, Kersna said: "If a new and brutal strain of Covid does not emerge this autumn, we will succeed in education."
Follow ERR News on Facebook and Twitter and never miss an update!
Editor: Andrew Whyte