What might the latest Finnish government anti-pandemic decisions mean in practice?

The government is trying to slow the spread of the virus without fully banning public gatherings, but has an emergency brake if all else fails.

Covid passports being checked at the entrance to a KHL hockey game in Helsinki on 28 November. Image: Antti Aimo-Koivisto / Lehtikuva

The Finnish government has outlined measures aimed at tighter restrictions rather than outright bans on moderately risky gatherings such as indoor sports, fairs, choir practice, or outdoor sporting events without assigned seating.

In practice, this could mean extending the use of the Covid passport, for example, to group exercise and other recreational facilities.

The projected requirement for use of the Covid passport follows the same logic as it does now in restaurants - there would be no need to limit the number of participants or the opening hours of, say, a theater or yoga club if the organiser requires Covid passport for entry.

It is not possible to extend requirements for the use of the Covid passport to essential and statutory services such as grocery stores, pharmacies, healthcare or libraries.

1. Each Regional State Administrative Agency (Avi) decides specific restrictions

Mikko Pietilä, Chief Medical Officer of the Hospital District of Southwest Finland told Yle on Wednesday that detailed guidelines from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health were still being awaited.

However, the North Ostrobothnia Regional State Administrative Agency announced on Wednesday that a ban on indoor gatherings of more than 20 people, where the Covid passport is not in use, was bring prepared for the region.

In addition, broader restrictions on commercial and freetime facilities will come into force in Northern Ostrobothnia at the beginning of next week at the earliest.

Restrictions applied to different parts of the country will be based on risk assessments by the National Institute for Health and Welfare THL. According to THL moderate risk is posed by activities such as outdoor concerts and sporting events without assigned seating, choirs of more than ten people, team sports, gyms and group exercise.

Restrictions will not necessarily mean that the facilities will be closed, says Oona Mölsä, Senior Inspector at the Regional State Administrative Agency of Southern Finland.

"It will be required, for example, to organise activities and facilities so that the risk of close contact can actually be prevented. Avoiding close contact may require health safety measures such as limiting the number of participants," Mölsä explains.

By requiring the Covid passport, organisers will be able to avoid restrictions on the number of participants.

2. Telecommuting recommendation for areas in spreading phase

Telecommuting is recommended in areas in the spreading phases of the coronavirus in both the public and private sectors.

3. Vaccination mandate for care workers next year?

The government plans to present a bill to parliament next week aimed at reducing the risk of healthcare professionals infecting patients with the coronavirus.

Under the plan, employers will have an obligation to ensure that staff do not pose a risk of infection to anyone receiving care services. Vaccinations would be classed as a part of healthcare occupational safety.

If passed by Parliament, implementation will be postponed until next year, as the draft law provides for a one-month transition period to allow non-vaccinated staff to get vaccinations.

4. Travel list of "safe countries" to be dropped

For the time being, it is still possible to enter Finland without a double vaccination or a Covid passport for travelers from countries on a so-called "green list" where the incident rate is under 25 Covid cases per 100 000 inhabitants.

The list currently includes Australia, South Korea, Hong Kong, Canada and New Zealand, among others.

According to Yle's information, the government now plans to drop this exemption.

All travelers to Finland will be required to have either a Covid passport or comparable vaccination certificate, or two negative test results, or evidence of having recovered from the coronavirus.

The European Commission has proposed abandoning the EU-wide list of green countries by the turn of the year.

5. More rapid tests, but who will pay?

The rate of coronavirus testing plummeted during the autumn when the testing strategy reduced access to tests for children with mild symptoms and adults who had received two vaccinations.

The move was largely influenced by a shortage of resources.

Testing places constraints on healthcare personnel. For example, diverting school health workers' hours for use in testing pulled them from school health check-ups and dental care.

The government wants to make it easier to get tested, but this faces the same resource issue.

THL has proposed the use of rapid antigen tests at home. If made available on a large scale, it must still be decided whether people will pay for them out of their own pockets or whether they will be reimbursed from the public purse.

6. Emergency brake applied in December, if nothing else helps

If the coronavirus continues to spread despite new restrictions, and hospitals are burdened at the current rate, the government has reserved what is being called an "emergency brake" as a last resort.

This would mean that the restrictions in force could not be circumvented with a Covid passport.

The government could direct regional administrative agencies to, among other things, ban public gatherings, close recreational facilities and restaurants, and under exceptional circumstances also introduce a state of emergency law.

This, in turn, would allow restrictions on movement in addition to business activities, if deemed necessary to curb development of the coronavirus spread.

Before the emergency brake can be applied, however, the impact of other restrictions must be monitored for two weeks. In other words, the most stringent restrictions could take effect no earlier than mid-December.