Health minister previously unaware hospitals unprepared for blackouts

Peep Peterson (SDE).
Peep Peterson (SDE). Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

According to Minister of Health and Labor Peep Peterson (SDE), he only recently became aware that Estonian hospitals were not in a position to meet legal requirements to continue running in the event of a power cut. Peterson has therefore promised to urgently seek extra funds to address the issue.

A couple of weeks ago, members of the government participated in a training drill, designed to prepare them for how to respond in the event of an electricity outage. At that time, Minister of Health and Labor Peep Peterson (SDE) was confident that there would be no major issues related to hospitals' abilities to continue operating. "In my memo, was the clear statement that everyone had generators," Peterson recalled.

However, after over 1,000 consumers, including Järva County Hospital, were left without electricity for an extended period on Tuesday, it became clear that simply having a generator would not be enough to mitigate the impact of power cuts.

"We are certainly still able receive patients in the emergency department, and can diagnose them using the simplest equipment," Külvar Mand, chief physician at Järva County Hospital told ERR show "Aktuaalne kaamera." "(However), both the X-ray (machine) and the laboratory are on standby, as they need more power," Mand said.

Minister of Health and Labor Peterson said, that more reliable information about the situation should have been circulated earlier.

"When a minister goes to a government exercise and starts saying that our healthcare will be able to remain standing, standing on one leg is not enough," Peterson said.

Järva County Hospital's ability to withstand a similar incident in the future would be aided by the provision of a more powerful generator, which it hopes to acquire in the future. However, the hospital, which assists around 10,000 emergency patients per year, is far from alone in having such concerns.

Despite the legal requirement that all Estonia's larger hospitals be able to continue operating independently for 72 hours, and smaller ones for 16 hours, the majority are unable to do so. Peterson said, that Tallinn Children's Hospital had been one of the most vocal in raising awareness of issues it could potentially face, should it be affected by a power outage.

"Their information we have is, that there is a generator (there). The government can report that as a tick," Peterson said, adding however, that officials had not made the effort to examine the issue in sufficient depth.

"If there really is a 20-year-old generator keeping a small part of the hospital running, then that is certainly not enough," the minister said.

However, the Health Board appears to have quite clear information on the matter. Each year, the board makes calculations each to determine the level of funds needed to ensure hospitals can continue functioning should an emergency situation occur.

In the fall, it was agreed that the total cost of ensuring Estonia's hospitals would be "crisis-proof" would come to €21 million. To protect against a blackout alone would require an investment of €13 million. However, in this year's state budget negotiations, Peterson asked for just €1.1 million in order to ensure hospital's could continue to operate.

However, according to Peterson, this amount was decided upon before he took office.

"The (Secretary-General of the Ministry of Social Affairs) has also admitted that this year, either the request (for funds) to secure the electricity supply was forgotten or deliberately not submitted," Peterson said.

"If one, or even three years ago, €13 million was requested and the situation has not improved much since then, why it was €1.1 million (in the fall), I am afraid I do not have an answer to that at the moment."

However, this €1.1 million did not make it into the budget either. In addition, almost every government press conference seems to mention the potential threat of electricity cuts.

"The truth is, that this government had no other crisis in mind than the war in Ukraine. Even the costs related to the aftermath of Covid had to have been a personal priority for (individual) ministers. So, the entire system has to be looked at critically here. As far as I know, there was no focus in any of the ministries on the possibility that Estonia could also come under attack," Peterson said.

Peterson has now promised to act swiftly in order to find more money to ensure hospitals are better prepared for such situations in future. "Now, we must go to the government with an emergency request. But maybe not for €13 million," the minister said.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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