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Minister wins confidence vote over mask guidelines confusion

Government parties closed ranks to defend Family Affairs and Social Services Minister Krista Kiuru.

Perhe- ja peruspalveluministeri Krista Kiuru
Family Affairs and Social Services defended her record on mask guidelines at a press conference on Wednesday. Image: Antti Aimo-Koivisto / Lehtikuva

Family Affairs and Social Services Minister Krista Kiuru survived a confidence vote in Parliament on Wednesday that ended 106 - 79 in her favour. Thirteen MPs were absent for the vote and one abstained.

As expected, government parties voted to support the embattled minister after the opposition National Coalition Party (NCP) tabled the confidence vote when conflicting accounts emerged of health officials' positions on mask use to tamp down the spread of coronavirus last spring.

As it tabled the motion last Friday, the NCP argued that last spring the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health provided guidance on the use of face masks that was not consistent with the best available information at the time.

The opposition party also criticised Kiuru’s messaging on communications relating to other corona-related recommendations and mandates. NCP chair Petteri Orpo said that regardless of the outcome, the parliamentary process was important.

"We believe that it’s important for this discussion to take place. Now that the government parties have shown strong support for Kiuru, they have the responsibility to ensure that they tell [people] firmly and honestly how things are," Orpo said after the vote.

Kiuru: Government relied on experts

Earlier on Wednesday, Kiuru hosted a press conference in which she said that the government’s coronavirus policies were based on input from a diverse group of experts such as the WHO. She added that recommendations were periodically reviewed as the epidemic progressed.

The minister said that while individual experts gave advice, government’s decisions in principle at the beginning of summer relied on a general policy of the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) to issue a face mask recommendation. THL director general Markku Tervahauta had previously said in interviews that mask use would be beneficial.

The minister was asked why the views of experts as well as THL head Tervahauta were not reflected in the ministry’s earlier mask recommendations.

Kiuru said that expert discussion on all issues related to managing the epidemic had been very strident.

"I wanted to hear everyone’s view. We had people who had diverging positions inside the THL as well, but the official policy of the THL and the Ministry as well as the expert information that the Ministry had at hand relied on the fact that it did not support a general recommendation for mask use," the minister told reporters.

The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (FIOH) was the body responsible for outlining guidelines for safe mask use, not the health ministry or the THL. The agency developed a graphic demonstrating appropriate mask usage, which it posted on its website.

According to the ministry’s department manager Tuija Kumpulainen this was natural because the use of an infographic about safe mask use on the THL’s website would have sent a conflicting signal that masks were being recommended.

"If we had put that infographic on the THL site, it would have looked like the THL was issuing a recommendation to use masks. We did not do that," Kumpulainen said.

At the end of May, a working group led by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health published a report declaring that the widespread use of face masks have little or no impact on reducing the spread of upper respiratory infections

In August the government eventually recommended that the public should use masks to help suppress the spread of the disease. Many other countries had already issued recommendations to wear masks but Finland and other Nordic countries took this step much later on.

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