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Gov't report: No return to normal life this year at least

The government decided to open up the economy after reading an 80-page report prepared by civil servants.

Valtiovarainministeriön kansliapäällikkö Martti Hetemäki (kesk.) hallituksen neuvotteluissa Säätytalolla Helsingissä 3. toukokuuta.
Martti Hetemäki, a senior government official, at the House of Estates for government negotiations on 3 May. Image: Laura Kotila / Valtioneuvoston viestintä
Yle News

Without big changes in the progress of the coronavirus epidemic, restrictions on everyday life are set to stay in force until 2021.

That is the message from an 80-page report upon which the government relied in making its decisions to reopen schools, bars and restaurants, libraries and swimming halls from mid-May. The full list of changes is available here.

The report was referred to in the media as the Hetemäki report, in honour of its lead author Martti Hetemäki.

Hetemäki is Finland's most senior civil servant, whose authority is unrivalled and who even opposition politicians hesitate to question. He was due to take up a role as a visiting professor this year but agreed to stay on to help oversee Finland's coronavirus response.

This report, which includes work from top officials in numerous ministries and experts from Finland's health authority THL, is the result of that decision.

But what does it say? The whole report is available to read here (in Finnish), but we have summarised the main points in this article.

How is the epidemic developing in Finland and what does that mean for restrictions on daily life?

Prime Minister Sanna Marin said on Monday that the basic reproduction number, or R0 figure, is 0.8.

As the number is below one, the epidemic is receding in Finland. Each infected person infects fewer than one other person, statistically speaking.

The Hetemäki report suggests that if the number was to rise to 1.2 and stay there, the epidemic would remain under control and fade away in about a year.

That would mean fairly strict restrictions for the whole year, isolation of those in risk groups and travel restrictions for an even longer period.

If restrictions were completely eliminated, infection rates would rise to the same level as before: 2.4. That would be unsustainable, as healthcare capacity would be exceeded especially in intensive care units.

If restrictions are loosened in stages and the R0 number rises to 1.6-1.8, the epidemic will continue until late autumn or early winter. The quicker restrictions are loosened, the quicker the epidemic progresses, but the heavier the burden on healthcare capacity.

What happens next?

Finland cannot suppress the pandemic alone. The report draws attention to the fact that restrictions can only be eased if the population has plentiful access to tests, contacts are traced via a mobile app and people in risk groups are protected efficiently.

According to the report, testing capacity can easily be doubled from 5,000 per day to 10,000. The report does not estimate, however, when a mobile app could be in widespread use.

Restrictions are being eased in stages everywhere. At the same time, preparations are being made to tighten them again if infection rates rise too much.

The report suggests that there will not be one 'big bang' where the emergency ends, but rather infection rates will be followed closely and policies adjusted accordingly.

It is unlikely that travel restrictions within the EU will be removed so long as the epidemic is at different stages in different countries. Reopening of most borders will only happen once the coronavirus epidemic is under control everywhere.

The EU's joint view is that some kind of societal restrictions should be followed until the epidemic is under control worldwide.

How well has Finland done?

According to the report, very well indeed.

The population has been protected from a new infectious disease, and intensive care capacity has held up very well. Across the country in the week leading up to May Day there were 172 people in intensive care with confirmed coronavirus infections.

Deaths in intensive care total 18.

The tough measures taken to fight coronavirus have, however, had a price. Some 150,000 people have been furloughed, and the unemployment rate has risen to eight percent.

According to the Confederation of Finnish Industries EK, 16 percent of companies that answered its survey said they fear bankruptcy.

There is also a human cost to restrictions, with older people and children kept apart for extended periods. General reductions in exercise and delays to non-urgent medical treatment create their own health risks.

Police callouts to domestic incidents have risen across the country by more than a third compared to one year ago.

What should we prepare for?

That we will not return to normal life for quite some time.

Emergency measures will stay in place for several months at least, some of them potentially for years. It is clear, however, that the majority of people outside of risk groups get mild symptoms or no symptoms at all.

All countries are currently balancing economic considerations and public health priorities. Governments want to open economies as quickly as possible, but not at the expense of public health.

Economic growth won't return to previous levels at the click of the fingers, however. The report suggests that the epidemic has caused huge uncertainty, concern about the future, and delayed investment and consumption.

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