The Chief of Staff at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, Kirsi Varhila, told Yle on Wednesday that she believes coronavirus restrictions in Finland were lifted too soon.
Her comments come as figures published by public health agency THL show the number of people being treated in hospitals for the virus has started to increase from 89 two weeks ago to 112 on Wednesday.
The restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of the virus were originally intended to be gradually relaxed once vaccination coverage reached 80 percent, but the majority of remaining measures — such as those on bars and restaurants as well as on public events — were lifted last week.
As of Wednesday evening, just over 63 percent of the entire population of the country have received two doses of a coronavirus vaccine, while the figure for the population aged 12 years and older stands at 71.9 percent.
"Restrictions were eased at quite a fast pace," Varhila said. "By the time we got to early October, almost all of the restrictions had already been lifted."
Currently, the only remaining restrictions apply to bars and restaurants located in regions considered to be in the accelerating phase of the pandemic. All other measures are recommendations.
"Yes, we in the ministry were very strongly of the opinion that the restrictions should not have been lifted on such a large scale," she said, adding that decisions on new restrictions are now difficult to make, even though infection rates are rising.
Yle's dashboard contains all the latest regional, national and international Covid data.
Covid-related hospitalisations on the rise
In addition to the infection rate, the number of patients being treated in hospitals for the virus has also started to increase.
According to the latest figures published on Wednesday by THL, there are currently 112 coronavirus patients in hospital, compared to 89 two weeks ago.
Furthermore, the number of patients in intensive care units has also risen, to 33 as of Wednesday evening. This figure does yet not put a strain on healthcare services, as the nationwide threshold is estimated to be around 40 patients receiving ICU treatment.
However, Professor Matti Reinikainen from the University of Eastern Finland told Yle that the number of ICU patients is not evenly distributed, and the capacities of ICU's in individual hospitals may already be stretched to their limits.
The treatment of coronavirus patients requires more resources than the treatment of conventional intensive care patients, Reinikainen pointed out.
"This is because it is typically a very severe respiratory failure, which in itself requires quite a lot of treatment. But in addition to this, patients must be isolated from other patients, and staff are required to wear protective clothing," he said, adding that the increase in the number of coronavirus patients is "worrying".
"In practice, this means that non-urgent surgical procedures have to be postponed in order to have enough staff involved in intensive care duties," Reinikainen said.
Vaccine coverage in Finland below EU average
During the summer, Finland's vaccination rate was well above the EU average but the pace of the rollout has slowed during the autumn, and the rate has now fallen below the average of other EU member states.
A report (siirryt toiseen palveluun) published last week by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said that Finland's relatively low vaccine coverage increases the risk of a sudden uptick in the number of new infections.
This in turn increases the need for hospitalisation and can also lead to more deaths, the ECDC report outlined, further adding that the easing of restrictions when vaccine coverage is at or below the EU average creates a high risk that the virus will spread.
The sharp rise in the number of infections also increases the risk of fully vaccinated people contracting a serious illness from the virus, the report added.