Finland's government has prepared a draft plan for the gradual relaxing and removal of coronavirus restrictions, beginning this month with the end of partial shutdown.
The plan would see primary school students in all parts of the country return to classrooms in April while bars and restaurants would be permitted to open their doors to customers once again.
There are still many uncertainties surrounding the plan to ease restrictions, as measures may need to be kept or reintroduced if the epidemic situation worsens, but the government presented the draft to the opposition parties on Thursday and intends to officially publish the finalised plan on Friday.
Here is a summary of the main points of the plan:
April, end of exceptional circumstances:
- Use of Emergency Powers Act expires
- Primary school students return to classrooms
- Bars and restaurants open, with limits on customer capacity
May, further lifting of restrictions
- Restrictions aimed at curbing rapid acceleration of the epidemic will be removed
- Outdoor hobbies for children and young people begin
- Grades 7-9, high schools and vocational schools return to classrooms nationwide
- Public spaces, such as libraries and museums, open
- Work-related travel within the EU will be permitted
June, phasing out of regional restrictions
- Restrictions on public gatherings will be relaxed
- Restrictions on opening hours, capacity of bars and restaurants will be relaxed
- Outdoor group activities for adults begin
- Audience events begin, with limits on attendance
- EU internal border controls end
July-August, increase vaccination coverage
- Restrictions on gatherings will be relaxed and removed
- Restrictions on participation in public events will be relaxed
- Group hobbies start again
- Work-related travel outside the EU opens up
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Vaccination progress and lifting of restrictions go 'hand in hand'
The government will closely monitor vaccination coverage as restrictions are relaxed, with a current estimate that all elderly people will have received at least one dose of a vaccine by the end of April and people in at-risk groups by the end of May.
The government hopes that 50 percent of the working-age population will receive at least one dose by June, rising to 100 percent by August. The elderly and at-risk groups are projected to receive their second dose by August.
However, the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare's (THL's) projections are subject to change due to uncertainties over the supply of vaccines, their restrictions on different age groups and people's willingness to take the jab.
Epidemic likely to ease by May Day
The government's plan relies on the THL assessment that the coronavirus situation will begin to ease by around the end of April or the start of May. If this happens, there would be an opportunity for the gradual opening up of society ahead of the summer months.
The assessment is based on the assumption that the vaccination rollout will proceed as planned, which is described in the plan as "cautious".
Not all restrictions will be eased however, even by the end of the summer, as many people would still not be fully vaccinated and the more contagious variants of the virus would likely be the most infectious forms.
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The plan therefore predicts that the number of infections will begin to rise again in August as social contacts in schools and workplaces increase.
However, this increase in infections is expected to be more moderate than last autumn, as vaccination coverage for adults, especially younger adults, would be sufficiently high to prevent a surge in infections.
Plan dependent on several indicators
The government will not begin to automatically lift restrictions during the spring and summer, as the relaxing or removal of restrictions will depend on the epidemic situation at the time based on several indicators.
The first of these indicators is the infection rate, which would need to reduce to about 50 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over the previous two week period throughout the country. In addition, chains of infection should be under control and the proportion of positive results in all coronavirus tests should be less than 1.5 percent.
Each phasing-out of a restriction would be accompanied by a two- or three-week observation period, after which further restrictions could be lifted.
The government is also working to coordinate the lifting of restrictions with other EU countries, as member states have agreed that external borders can be opened when the epidemic situation in neighbouring countries are the same.
EU travel possible with 'Covid passport'
EU countries are preparing a common "Covid passport" that would allow for travel between member states for people who have been vaccinated, those who have a negative test result, or those who have previously had the virus.
Finland is preparing for the Finnish vaccine passport to be ready by the end of the summer. It will be implemented using the Omakanta system, which allows users to view their own health information, including records and prescriptions.
The EU Commission had previously hoped that the passport system would be in place by the end of June, but many countries have indicated that they will miss this deadline.
The government's plan states that "due to the pace of vaccination, the government does not consider it appropriate to introduce privilege schemes for those who have been vaccinated," and therefore restrictions on travel would still apply to all people living in Finland.
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The government also plans that work-related travel and trips to see close family within the European Union would be possible again in May or June.
Work-related travel to the EU from non-EU countries could possibly begin again in early autumn, while tourism travel to Finland from outside the EU is more vaguely described in the plan, "as the epidemic fades".
Bars, restaurants open under strict conditions
The current closure of bars and restaurants in most parts of Finland is due to end on Sunday 18 April. After that, the government plans that the re-opening of premises would be accompanied by restrictions on opening hours and limits on the number of customers allowed at any one time.
A bill is currently being considered by Parliament, which would make it possible to regulate the opening hours of bars and restaurants more strictly than before the closure order.
At its strictest, the bill would mean bars and restaurants in the worst-affected areas could be ordered to stop serving as early as 5pm and close their doors by 6pm.
If the virus situation improves, it is likely that the strictest regulations on bars and restaurants would apply to a smaller number of regions than the current closure order.
Events could restart in three stages
The government plans to facilitate the organisation of events, such as concerts and festivals, through a three stage process. However, these restrictions are decided independently by municipalities and regional state administrative agencies (Avi's).
In the first stage, it would be possible to organise events in which audience members are assigned their own places and groups could avoid close contact with each other.
At this stage, the national infection rate should be 75 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over the preceding two week period, and the regional situation should also be under control.
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In the second stage, it would be possible to hold "bigger events", but the maximum audience should be scaled according to the space. In this situation, the national infection rate should not exceed 50.
In the third stage, restrictions would be lifted entirely.
Mask, telecommuting recommendations may end in June
As part of the lifting of restrictions, the government intends in early June to consider removing the recommendations to wear face masks and to work from home if possible.
However, both recommendations will be reconsidered again in August, as the end of summer holidays may lead to a spread of the virus among unvaccinated people.
In addition, recommendations to stay at home and go for a coronavirus test if coronavirus symptoms are evident may remain in place for a long time until the epidemic subsides.
Recommendations for good hand and cough hygiene may also remain on a permanent basis.