Prime Minister Sanna Marin has ordered the government’s coronavirus coordination task force to release all non-confidential documents after the team was accused of concealing information.
In a tweet on Saturday afternoon, Marin said she had discussed the team’s operations with her state secretary, Mikko Koskinen, who heads the group. She said she told him to release all non-classified information used by the team.
Marin noted that the government declared on 6 May that all background information and calculations used in decision-making must be published in line with the principles of openness in science and research.
The premier’s statement followed a Saturday-morning report from the Finnish News Agency STT, which said that the coronavirus task force had failed to hand over documentation that STT requested last month.
The news agency argued that the information was covered by the 1999 Act on the Openness of Government Activities, which states that everyone is entitled to obtain information about official public documents unless they are classified as confidential.
Mäenpää rejects claim of exemption
The Prime Minister’s Office had argued that the coordination team was not covered by the act – a claim that was rejected by Olli Mäenpää, a distinguished former law professor and Supreme Court judge.
STT had asked Koskinen to hand over all documents used by the coordination team. However the Prime Minister’s Office only released the agendas for its meetings, not the minutes, memoranda or background material as requested.
These meetings covered issues such as evaluations from the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) regarding coronavirus strategy, the availability of protective equipment, testing capacity, the situation at airports and on Finland’s border with Sweden, and the closure of the Uusimaa region.
The Council of State set up the Covid-19 Coordination Group in February. It includes the state secretaries – the highest-ranking civil servants – of all 11 ministries. Finland’s first coronavirus death was reported on 21 March.
Officials miss deadlines to respond
Mäenpää, professor emeritus of administrative law, studied STT’s requests for documents and the official responses to them.
He said that the matters on the meeting agendas should in principle be public “unless there is some information related to security plans or something of that type, but that is highly unlikely,” he said.
“I don’t see how the unique nature of this group would somehow be a particularly relevant factor. Clearly it is official business and should certainly follow the Act on the Openness of Government Activities,” he told the news agency.
STT has filed a series of requests for corona-related documents from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health and the THL, some of which have not brought any response within two weeks as stipulated by law.
Justice Chancellor launches probe
Mäenpää says it is understandable that the officials are under pressure, but that that cannot be a general excuse for ignoring legal deadlines.
He was a professor of administrative law at the universities of Helsinki and Turku for decades, as well as a Supreme Administrative Court judge and chair of the Council for Mass Media.
Chancellor of Justice Tuomas Pöysti and his deputy Mikko Puumalainen are looking into how the Openness Act has been followed in preparations and decision-making related to the coronavirus epidemic. They have filed requests for clarification from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health and the THL.