PM announces new voluntary face mask policy, backtracks on border testing and self-isolation

The new recommendations ask people to wear nose and mouth coverings on public transport, or in other situations where social distancing can't be maintained.

Mika Salminen from THL and PM Sanna Marin (SDP) give briefing on face masks, Helsinki 13th August 2020 / Credit: Laura Kotila, VNK

Prime Minister Sanna Marin (SDP) says the government supports a national recommendation to use face masks on public transport and other situations where it’s not possible to maintain good social distancing.

But the PM is backtracking on strict measures announced on Monday by Minister of Family and Basic Services Krista Kiuru (SDP) on mandatory coronavirus tests and fines or prison time for travelers who don’t self-isolate.

Speaking at a press conference in Helsinki on Thursday afternoon, Marin said that citizens are expected to provide their own masks, however local authorities will be required to make sure that people on low incomes get proper supplies of face masks, and he state will refund municipalities for this cost.

Mika Salminen from the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare THL says the evidence that masks work is not very strong, and that they need to be used by as many people as possible to become more effective – especially in places where coronavirus infections have been reported in the previous two weeks.

Authorities stress again that wearing a mask should not be a substitute for other ways to guard against catching or spreading coronavirus, which include good hand and cough hygiene, and keeping a distance between other people.

Masks are advised for anyone aged over 15-years old on a voluntary basis only, because there is no current legal framework to make it a legally enforceable.

THL’s Director of Health Security Mika Salminen at Helsinki briefing, 13th August 2020 / Credit: Laura Kotila, VNK

Coronavirus situation abroad, and in Finland  

Despite Monday’s announcement by Krista Kiuru, today the government’s new position is that coronavirus tests at Finland’s borders are voluntary, and enforced quarantines are only possible under the auspices of the Infectious Diseases Act if someone is suspected of having coronavirus.

Countries are being divided into red, yellow and green: passengers arriving from red – high risk – countries with a high instance of coronavirus are likely to face extensive, voluntary, coronavirus testing and possible mandatory quarantines.

People arriving from yellow – low risk – countries should self-isolate on a voluntary basis for 14 days.

Green countries are those with less than eight Covid-19 infections per 100,000 population in the last two weeks with free travel to and from Finland.

Mika Salminen says the pandemic is particularly bad in the Americas, while in Europe the situation has also changed over the summer. There’s localised spikes in infectious rates in countries that had the virus under control previously like Australia and Japan.

Salminen says the situation in Finland has been under control for a while now – although THL issued a statement on Thursday morning saying the number of coronavirus infections “has clearly increased.”

But while the number of cases has increased, deaths have not started to rise in the same way they did during spring – that’s something which public health officials have observed in a number of other countries, that the new growing numbers of coronavirus infections haven’t lead to a similar increase in the number of hospital admissions or fatalities like we saw at the start of the pandemic.

New working from home guidelines 

The government is also issuing new recommendations about working from home, which will be applied on a regional basis.

At present, due to the coronavirus situation in Helsinki and Uusimaa Hospital District, Southwest Finland Hospital District and Western Ostrobothnia, the prime minister says people should work from home, where possible.

If infection rates start rising nationally then public sector workers will be instructed to work remotely – and the private sector will also be encouraged to do the same thing.