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Cabinet may use Emergency Powers Act, says key parliamentary committee

The Constitutional Law Committee gave the cabinet the green light to use extraordinary powers to fight the pandemic.

Matkustajia passintarkastuksessa Helsinki-Vantaan lentoasemalla.
The Constitution Law Committee pointed out that the Emergency Powers Act does completely solve problems such as last spring's ambiguities over decision-making on anti-Covid measures at Helsinki Airport. Image: Jani Saikko / Yle
Yle News

The Finnish Parliament's powerful Constitutional Law Committee has approved the government's moves to invoke parts of the Emergency Powers Act. In a statement on Wednesday, the committee said it sees no obstacles to the use of emergency laws to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

The powers to be adopted relate to directing the operations of healthcare and social welfare units and compliance with the time limits for non-urgent care.

The cabinet also seeks to adopt powers related to emergency communications and decisions on which authority has power in ambiguous situations. That would cover, for instance, deciding who is responsible for deciding on anti-Covid measures at Helsinki Airport, which caused some confusion last spring.

The committee also confirmed that Finland is in exceptional circumstances.

However, it stipulated that the special powers can only be applied in mainland Finland, not in the autonomous Åland Islands.

The centre-left cabinet led by Prime Minister Sanna Marin (SDP) announced last week that it would introduce four sections of the emergency law. This is done through decrees, which must be approved by Parliament.

The 17-member Constitutional Law Committee includes representatives from all the main parliamentary groups, and is chaired by Marin's predecessor as prime minister, Antti Rinne (SDP).

2 familiar healthcare powers

Two of the articles focusing on healthcare were already invoked last spring, so were readily approved by the committee.

Section 86 authorises the centralisation and transfer of medical care or patients from one locality to another, and the referral of staff to work between private and public health care, for instance.

Section 88 gives authorities the right to postpone non-urgent care of patients in order to increase operating room capacity.

A plenary session of Parliament is to discuss the decrees on Thursday, when the mandates are due to take effect.

If contingency laws are actually implemented, though, the legislature will still have to a chance to weigh in on whether their use is fully justified.

The Ministry of Social Affairs and Health is to issue an implementing regulation specifying exactly how the laws will be used.

According to Yle sources, the first to be used next week would be the postponement of non-urgent care in the worst-hit epidemic areas, such as the Helsinki-Uusimaa healthcare district.

Communications clause invoked for the first time

The other two capabilities to be deployed were considered by the Constitutional Law Committee for the first time.

Section 106 centralises communications from the government, including the ministries, the THL, and the National Emergency Supply Agency (Nesa).

This is aimed at avoiding situations in which various ministries and agencies make conflicting recommendations on measures to rein in the pandemic, for instance.

Article 107 concentrates state powers in the Prime Minister's Office.

The government said it is needed to resolve ambiguities such as who is responsible for instructing passengers arriving at Helsinki Airport, which resulted in delays last year.

The committee pointed out, however, that this article would not be helpful in resolving these types of situations, as it does not override the local municipalities' decision-making powers.

The committee approved the use of these two articles, except on the Åland Islands. It specified, however, that the centralisation of communications should only apply to pandemic-related matters.

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