Health minister welcomes communicable diseases law reaching Supreme Court

Minister of Health and Labor Tanel Kiik (Center).
Minister of Health and Labor Tanel Kiik (Center). Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Minister of Health and Labor Tanel Kiik (Center) welcomes the Tallinn Administrative Court ruling calling the constitutionality of the Communicable Diseases Prevention and Control Act (NETS) into question reaching the Supreme Court of Estonia, as this will provide everyone with needed legal clarity.

Ruling in favor of 56 people to sue the Estonian government over COVID-19 related restrictions, the second-tier Tallinn Administrative Court found that certain provisions of the NETS law are unconstitutional and forwarded the case to the Supreme Court for a constitutional review.

For example, the court found that requiring a COVID certificate infringes on some people's fundamental rights, and that doing so isn't a suitable measure in general for preventing infection or the spread of the disease or for avoiding burdening hospitals.

According to Kiik, a Supreme Court ruling will provide much more clarity, as there have been many and various court cases and rulings in connection with COVID-related restrictions.

"This dispute is certainly very welcome for the Ministry of Social Affairs and for the government, and we'll receive the necessary assessment from the Supreme Court regarding whether specific sections of NETS and the COVID certificate implemented based thereon are constitutional, as this is the information and pattern of operation that we have used as our basis," Kiik said. "So this information and the Supreme Court's assessment are crucial to our preparations for future waves and in responding to whatever future pandemics as well."

The health minister noted that this marked the first court case over government-imposed restrictions that has been ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.

"In light of that, the Supreme Court's assessment will have the greatest weight," he said.

He also noted that it is difficult for both the Ministry of Social Affairs and the government to act in a situation where different judges are ruling differently on several different cases in the same court tier. "This isn't sustainable at all from our planning perspective, from the population's perspective or from business-owners' perspective."

A bill of amendments to NETS has meanwhile completed its first reading in the Riigikogu, however following obstruction on the part of the opposition Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), it was effectively paused, which will also give legislators time to take feedback from the courts and the chancellor of justice into consideration, Kiik said.

Speaking to ERR on Wednesday, Chancellor of Justice Ülle Madise said that NETS needs to be rewritten in its entirety and that proposed changes won't be sufficient for ensuring constitutionality or legal clarity. According to Madise, the bill being signed into law in its current state would mean she would have to submit it to the Supreme Court for constitutional review.

According to Kiik, however, lawmakers also cooperated with the justice chancellor in drawing up the bill, and her latest proposals, which followed the first reading of the bill, will be taken into account as well.

"What want is legal clarity from a crises perspective, predictability, but also capacity for the government to react in defense of people's lives and health if necessary in times of pandemic," he said, adding that they cannot and are not interested in going to one extreme or another in terms of the capacity to impose restrictions.

In response to the justice chancellor's position that society cannot demand or the government lightly impose restrictions, Kiik said that, compared with the rest of the world, Estonia has imposed relatively lax restrictions. "You could say that the government has maintained a reasonable balance," he said. "I believe that that balance has been pretty good in Estonia."

In response to Madise's criticism about tying the implementation of restrictions to various indicators, such as case numbers or hospitalizations, the health minister said that the government needs a certain ability to react, for which the number of patients requiring hospitalization provides a clear indicator.

The Tallinn Administrative Court's ruling can be appealed within 30 days of the Supreme Court announcing its decision.

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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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