Sweeping new coronavirus measures shut down schools, limit public gatherings, protect elderly

The Government's new measures are intended to slow down the spread of Covid-19 where possible, and protect those most at risk from the pandemic.

File picture of PM Sanna Marin (SDP) and other ministers at coronavirus briefing, Helsinki, 16th March 2020 / Credit: Laura Kotila, VNK

The Finnish Government has declared a state of emergency, and a raft of sweeping new measures to fight the spread of coronavirus.

They include:

  • Introducing the Emergency Act to give authorities more temporary powers;
  • Shutting down schools, colleges and universities from Wednesday;
  • Prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people;
  • Closing Finland’s international borders to foreigners and non-residents;
  • Introducing new rules for visiting elderly care homes & hospitals;
  • Requiring people over 70 to self-isolate;
  • Closing all cultural institutions and sports facilities.
File photo of tables & chairs in a classroom / Credit: iStock

Schools to be closed, Emergency Act coming into force

All schools, colleges and universities will be closed from Wednesday, with students switching to distance learning instead.

It’s a move the government’s critics say should have happened before now.

There’s an exception for kindergartens which will remain open for the children of parents who have to work but in practice parents are being strongly encouraged to keep their children away from daycare where possible.

Prime Minister Sanna Marin (SDP) outlined the list of new measures at a Monday afternoon press conference with other ministers, where they said that with Covid-19 now spreading faster in Finland than before, they’re trying to ‘flatten the curve’ of the number of sick people over a longer period of time, rather than face a sudden spike in numbers and eventually deaths.

The goal is to protect the most at-risk groups while others will inevitably get sick. However the Government says it’s not trying to engineer any ‘herd immunity’ – just that the spread of coronavirus in Finland is at a much earlier stage than other countries and based on expert advice these new measures are now required to fit Finland’s circumstances.

The Government has agreed with President Sauli Niinistö that the Emergency Act will be introduced, as the conditions for its implementation have been met. Cabinet will meet on Tuesday to formalise this.

Until now, measures to control the spread of coronavirus in Finland have been handled under the provisions of the Infectious Diseases Act. But introducing the Emergency Act would give authorities greater direct powers, for example to order bars, restaurants and shopping centres to close, or to put airports and ports on lock-down.

File photo of woman holding elderly woman’s hand / Credit; iStock Photo

New rules on meet-ups, elderly quarantine and hospital visits

Also announced on Monday is a ban on public gatherings of more than ten people; and there’s a ban too on visits to elderly care homes – a group very much at risk from the virus.

People aged over 70 are obligated wherever possible to practice social distancing, and limit contact with other people in a de facto quarantine – with the exception of Members of Parliament, government and local council leaders.

Visits to sick people in hospital are broadly banned, but can be decided on a case-by-case basis.

File picture of Nordic flags / Credit: iStock

Preparations to close the borders

Preparations are also being made to close Finland’s borders to international traffic and Finns abroad are being encouraged to return home – where they are told to go into self-quarantine for two weeks. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had already changed its travel advice over the weekend to tell Finns not to travel overseas.

On Monday President Niinistö had a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin about coronavirus, at Finland’s request, and their shared border was discussed.

“The Presidents discussed the situation created by the coronavirus and its implications for the Finnish-Russian border” the president’s office says in a statement.

Passenger traffic to Finland will be suspended as soon as possible, except for Finnish citizens and residents coming back home. However anyone who has a cross-border job will be allowed to through the northern and western borders – and freight traffic continues as normal.

File picture of football on pitch / Credit: iStock

Cultural institutions, sports facilities closed

The Government has also ordered all state-run museums, theaters, cultural centres, the National Opera and libraries to close.

The ban extends to swimming pools and other sports facilities, including for young people, club rooms, non-governmental organisation meeting places, and day care centres for the elderly.

In addition, religious communities are urged to consider closing their buildings; and other private sector operators are being asked to consider doing the same. This could mean more gyms or private leisure and sports centres closing their doors for the time being.