International travel, lack of enforcement on self-isolation highlighted as serious coronavirus risks for Finland

Investigation shows despite lockdown tens of thousands of foreign passengers arrived in Finland with very few refused entry in April, May and June - and no checks made on whether they self-isolated for 14 days or not.

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File picture of man in face mask at airport arrivals hall / Credit: iStock

The couple who flew from London for a family party said they didn’t need to go into self-isolation because they traveled on Finnish passports. The businessman from France said he came to Helsinki for work, and didn’t need to self-isolate either. The tourists from Sweden arrived in Turku without being challenged on their reasons for visiting.

With international travel being highlighted as a factor behind the recent rise in coronavirus cases, concerns are also being raised over lax adherence to self-isolation protocols, and whether the government needs to toughen them up.

Passengers arriving from a relatively small group of countries can now come to Finland without voluntarily self-isolating because the coronavirus infection rates in their home nations are at a low level. However anyone coming from a country not on that list – including UK, France, Spain, Sweden, Russia and most countries outside the EU – are only supposed to be allowed into Finland for urgent, pressing reasons, and advised to go into self-isolation for 14 days on arrival.

The problems is the self-isolation is entirely voluntary and unlike other countries there’s no legal enforcement, no checks, and no penalties for anyone who simply wants to ignore the advice.

“The voluntary self-isolation is a strong recommendation given by the Government of Finland, the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs and THL, but it has no legal basis itself” explains Hannu Kiviranta, Chief of Preparedness at the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare THL.

According to the 2016 Communicable Diseases Act doctors at a district hospital, or the chief physician in a municipality, can order someone to go into quarantine if they have a hazardous disease, or are suspected of having one. In those cases there are regular checks made to ensure the patient is where they’re supposed to be.

But without a legally enforceable law requiring arriving passengers to go into self-isolation, there’s almost nothing that can be done by public health officials to make sure they do.

“A lot of burden and responsibility to follow these recommendations is been set to an individual to follow these recommendations. In Finland we count on people that they, with given information, see what is best for themselves and their circle of friends” Kiviranta tells News Now Finland.

Passport control checkpoints / Credit: @lapinraja Twitter

Arriving passenger numbers during lockdown 

During most of spring this year Finland was on lockdown to foreign visitors. While there were thousands of Finns and Finnish residents who returned from overseas to their homes, anyone else who wanted to come here needed to have a strong reason to do so: like attending the funeral of a relative, some other family emergency, or important work which could not be done remotely.

The criteria was strict enough that doctors, who would usually travel from their homes in Sweden to work in Åland, were not allowed to come without quarantining; while Finnish medical staff who worked in Norrbotten in Sweden but lived in Finland were given special dispensation to cross the border for shifts only if they adhered to strict quarantine-like protocols.

With the majority of flights grounded, passenger numbers at Helsinki Airport, the main port of entry for international passengers to Finland, reduced to a trickle.

But statistics obtained from the Finnish Border Guard by News Now Finland show that many people from countries with high instances of coronavirus infections continued to come into Finland, and very few were refused entry.

Out of more than 650,000 passengers who arrived in Finland during April, May and June less than 500 were turned away at the border.

For example, according to Border Guard statistics there were 296 Dutch nationals who arrived during that time, and just four were refused entry; there were 256 Bulgarians (4 refusals); 187 Spaniards (2 refusals); 2,557 Swedes (8 refusals); 700 Germans (8 refusals); 14,534 Estonians (118 refused entry).

Among passengers from outside the EU there were 122,328 Russians (48 refusals); 12,586 Ukranians (7 refusals); 1,197 passengers from China (2 refusals); 606 Indian nationals and 62 Iranians – with no-one refused entry.

So did everyone have a vital need to be in Finland during a period of lockdown, as authorities were trying to slow the spread of coronavirus and accurately trace any infection chains?

Despite repeated requests, the Finnish Border Guard wasn’t able to make anyone available for interview to explain what questions are asked when passengers arrive at the border, nor what criteria is used to assess whether individual visitors absolutely must come into Finland if their country is not on the list of safer Covid-19 nations.

File picture of woman wearing anti-pollution / anti-germ face mask / Credit: iStock

Monitoring passengers after they arrive

The situation is different in many other countries: where there can be mandatory health checks on arrival; where passengers might have to provide their self-isolation address; and where there could be fines for breaking the rules.

Wasiq Silan, a political science PhD researcher at the University of Helsinki, recently flew to her home country of Taiwan where they take a different approach to ensuring self-isolation.

“I think the regulations are much stricter in Taiwan. I feel much safer. It feels that the authority is on top of everything” she tells News Now Finland.

“Before I departed from Amsterdam, my temperatures are measured and a health form was filled. Then when I arrived in Taiwan, I gave my phone number for them to track me during the quarantine. If I head out of my flat, I will get a fine up to 1,000,000 Taiwan dollars [approx €28,000]. Every morning I receive a phone call to make sure I am healthy” she explains.

In the UK there are also fines for anyone breaking quarantine rules, with authorities in Scotland supposed to make a random 20% compliance check on arriving passengers instructed to go to self-isolation.

Finnish authorities seem to have belatedly understood the loopholes in their guidelines, as preparations are advanced to deal with a possible second wave of coronavirus infections.

In a Monday interview with Helsingin Sanomat, Minister of Family and Basic Services Krista Kiuru (SDP) said she’s ordered agencies to consider tighter controls on people coming back from at-risk countries to ensure they comply with self-isolation recommendations.