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Opposition: Law change could limit freedoms under cover of pandemic action

Legal changes could give local authorities sweeping powers to intervene in business activity and public transport.

Sanna Marin tapaa mediaa Säätytalon portailla ennen hallituksen iltakoulua.
Prime Minister Sanna Marin as she arrived to chair the government's "night school" session on Wednesday. Image: Vesa Moilanen / Lehtikuva

Opposition parties have said that they are worried that potential legal changes to Finland's infections diseases laws could limit fundamental freedoms.

Their concerns came as government and opposition parties convened from 4pm on Wednesday to discuss possible changes to the laws that would give local authorities more wiggle room to combat the coronavirus epidemic.

The government hopes the legislative amendments would give municipalities and regional administrative authorities more muscle to deal with infectious diseases like Covid-19 without central government having to declare a state of emergency as it did last spring.

Another goal is to ensure the continuity of the social and healthcare system during a crisis. Some of the likely changes to be discussed during the government’s so-called "night school" session will only remain in force temporarily, during the current epidemic.

PM: State of emergency must be a last resort

Arriving for the discussions, Prime Minister Sanna Marin said that reforming current infectious diseases legislation is a challenging and major undertaking. It is for this reason that she said it is important to expose opposition parties to expert analyses.

"We want this information and this background to be thoroughly open to all parties," Marin said.

"There is probably a lot that we will disagree on, but I also want to believe that in the face of a global challenge there is a common will to keep the disease under control," she added.

Marin noted that invoking the Emergency Powers Act is a particularly extreme measure that imposes a nationwide state of emergency. Apart from a severe infectious disease, other reasons for invoking the tool include a military crisis. Additionally, broad parliamentary approval is required to trigger the Act.

Marin said that she would prefer not to have to resort to the Act to combat the coronavirus epidemic.

"We are doing everything we can to deal with the epidemic using normal legislation. Resorting to a state of emergency is always a last resort," she noted.

NCP: Freedoms might be limited on improper grounds

The opposition National Coalition Party said that it is concerned that the proposed legal changes could give authorities the power to curtail freedoms under the cover of the epidemic.

"There must be a guarantee that in uncertain times no one will misuse these rights," NCP chair Petteri Orpo said.

NCP parliamentary group chair Kai Mykkänen noted that it is important to keep under lock and key the right to limit fundamental freedoms such as the right to congregate and entrepreneurial freedom -- including the power to invoke the Emergency Powers Act.

"In principle, we must maintain fundamental rights and freedoms in Finland and interfering with them should only be possible by way of the Emergency Powers Act, that is a given," Mykkänen said as he went into the talks.

He added that last spring showed that the threshold for invoking the Act is not too high, even in a tight spot.

Municipalities could shutter facilities, scale down public transport

Proposed amendments to the Infectious Diseases Act were circulated for commenting in September. Some of the planned changes include obliging local governments to treat patients from other municipalities.

Additionally, local authorities could order businesses such as restaurants or gyms to take certain actions to limit the spread of the coronavirus epidemic. Municipalities or regional administrative authorities could, for example, order business owners to shut down parts of their facilities to ensure safety distances among customers. As a last resort, local officials could completely close down businesses for a fixed period.

The draft legislation also contains clauses governing hygiene measures at customer facilities, from the availability of hand sanitiser to maintaining clean surfaces. So far, businesses have voluntarily followed hygiene recommendations.

The hygiene requirements would also affect public transport. If it is not possible to maintain hygiene levels or ensure safe distancing, officials will limit passenger numbers.

Potential changes to infectious diseases legislation will also be scrutinised from the constitutional perspective.

Smaller amendments to the laws are already in the works, but government said that it is aiming for parliamentary support for the bigger measures.

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