Finland works on Covid strategy amid rising cases and anticipated arrival of Omicron

The government met to hammer out measures to deal with rising case numbers, the vaccine situation and the unknowns surrounding the latest coronavirus variant.

Minister of Family Affairs and Social Services, Krista Kiuru (SDP) speaking to reporters ahead of the government's meeting at the House of Estates in Helsinki on Tuesday. Image: Benjamin Suomela / Yle

Members of Prime Minister Sanna Marin's (SDP) government gathered at the House of Estates in Helsinki on Tuesday afternoon to discuss strategies to improve the country's worsening coronavirus situation, but Marin attended the meeting remotely due to cold symptoms.

A statement from the Prime Minister's office said Marin would be tested for Covid.

The meeting came days after it was announced that a new coronavirus variant, known as Omicron, was circulating around the world. Little is known about the variant or how much of a threat it poses, but it is thought to spread more easily than previous ones.

The Minister of Family Affairs and Social Services, Krista Kiuru (SDP), said earlier on Tuesday that places of employment should start using Covid passes in order to operate more safely.

Kiuru noted that the matter of requiring proof of vaccination or recovery from the illness has links to fundamental rights and the Constitution, saying that mandating the passes would require labour market groups to take part in the negotiations.

Following the meeting, Kiuru said that the government negotiations were carried out in good spirits, and that solutions would be reached. She said the epidemic situation has been difficult for some time and that hospitals have felt the burden of increasing numbers of Covid patients needing care for several weeks. She also acknowledged that Finland's vaccination coverage has not grown as anticipated.

Kiuru said that there are concerns that the Omicron variant might spread even faster than the current variant, Delta, adding that there is not much known about the new variant. She said the government needs to prepare for worst case scenarios, in light of missing information about Omicron.

The minister said that the government is planning to raise restrictions on events taking place in regions deemed to be in the community transmission phase of the epidemic. However venues and event organisers will be able to circumvent such restrictions if Covid passes are put into use, she said.

Worsened situation

Finnish health care workers are faced with mounting numbers of new Covid-19 cases. As of Tuesday there were 317 people in Finland receiving hospital treatment for coronavirus infections, 51 of whom were in intensive care units — the highest such figures the country has seen since the beginning of the epidemic.

Coronavirus-related fatalities have also risen steadily since a slowdown over the summer. In mid-August Finland had recorded a total of around 1,000 Covid-related fatalities since the start of the epidemic in spring 2020. As of Tuesday, 30 November 2021, the country's coronavirus death toll stood at 1,335.

This week the Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) recommended the resumption of distance working arrangements in areas considered to be in the epidemic's spreading phase. Such recommendations are already in force in the Helsinki area and the region of Southwest Finland.

On Monday health authorities announced that two suspected cases of the Omicron variant were being examined in Finland, saying that the process would take days.

'We have the will to act quickly'

As she arrived at the House of Estates, family affairs and social services minister Kiuru said she expected results from the meeting to be announced later in the day, saying that the social and health care ministers' group had discussed new measures to address the situation.

"I think the government has the will to act, and act quickly," she said, without specifying measures before the meeting.

"The most important thing is that we — regionally and with the help of regional authorities — do everything we can to get the epidemic situation under control," she said, adding that border security needed to be tightened, in order to slow the spread of the new variant.

Meanwhile, interior minister Krista Mikkonen (Green) said that the government planned to discuss how the country should prepare for the inevitable spread of Omicron.

"It is clear that the new virus variant will come to Finland. The question is how we can slow its spread," Mikkonen said.

Minister of Justice Anna-Maja Henriksson (SFP) said before the meeting that new restrictions may be on the way in order to deal with the situation.

"If restrictions are implemented, you have to think about what they will achieve. The important thing now is [for people] to take the vaccine," she said, adding that the government relies on experts about things like the possibility of expediting the distribution of Covid booster jabs.