Ministers: Easing travel restrictions paves the way for coronavirus ‘new normal’

The new, more relaxed regulations, could help boost the economy and safeguard jobs especially in the seasonal tourist industry.

File picture of (L-R) Mika Lintilä (Centre) / Maria Ohisalo (Green) / Timo Harakka (SDP) at coronavirus briefing Helsinki, 11th September 2020 / Credit: Laura Kotila, VNK

The government is paving the way for a long-term ‘new normal’ where Covid-19 is entrenched in Europe for months or years to come, by easing border restrictions to allow more people to travel to Finland.

Until now Finland has relied on one of the more stringent border control systems to keep coronavirus infections at bay, where any more than 8-10 confirmed Covid-19 cases per 100,000 population in the previous two weeks will get a country moved to the ‘red list’ where travel without a good reason is not not allowed.

At least, that’s the theory. In practice, a News Now Finland investigation found that during the worst months of the pandemic in spring tens of thousands of people were traveling to Finland from some of the worst-hit countries, and virtually nobody was refused entry by the Border Guard.

It is hoped that easing the travel restrictions progressively over the next several months will help facilitate EU freedom of movement, boost the economy and safeguard jobs especially in the tourist industry.

File picture of vehicles waiting at West Harbour Helsinki, for arrival of Tallink ferry from Estonia, May 2019 / Credit: iStock

Stage one: from 19th September

The new rules come into place on 19th September when passengers will be allowed to come to Finland for any reason, without the expectation of going into self-isolation, from countries with up to 25 confirmed cases of coronavirus per 100,000 population in the last two weeks. These countries are on the EU’s ‘green list’ and will be reviewed by public health officials on a weekly basis.

“We’ve had the discussion about the risks. Obviously there are risks. But at the same time we might have to live in this kind of situation for quite a long time. So that’s why we need more long time perspective solutions” says Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo (Green).

The minister explains there were three aspects the government considered along with experts when taking a decision to loosen border controls including seeing how the overall situation was evolving over time; looking at the social and economic impact of the restrictions; and making sure the legislative framework for new decisions was in place.

Visitors from countries including Norway, Sweden, Germany and Poland will be able to visit Finland from next Saturday without the expectation of having to self-isolate.

File picture of departure board at Helsinki Airport showing canceled flights, 25th November 2019 / Credit: News Now Finland

Stage two: from 22nd November

From 22nd November anyone from a high risk country will need to prove a negative coronavirus test taken 72 hours before travel to Finland, and it will be the responsibility of airlines, ferry companies or bus operators to ensure proof is provided. This rule won’t apply to Finnish nationals or residents.

After arriving anyone staying longer than 72 hours will have to self-isolate and then get another negative test before continuing their trip. Anyone staying less than that will not be required to take a second test and can go home at the end of their visit.

“We have to move from this exceptional legislation to normal legislation which adapts to the fact that Covid-19 will be among us, and among Europeans for quite some time. We cannot keep up exceptional measures all the time” says Minister for Transport and Communications Timo Harakka (SDP).

“We need to take the health considerations very seriously […] the bar is set rather high and also the requirements of entering the country will remain restricted” he says in response to a News Now Finland question.

The system, he says “is resulting to 90% certainty of not increasing the situation in Finland.”

File picture of husky sled ride in Lapland / Credit: iStock

Eased restrictions for charter and tour groups 

Regional travel authorities have welcomed the decision to make package and charter holidays easier with special arrangements even if countries have a high instance of Covid-19.

Lapland relies heavily on winter tourists in the run-up to Christmas especially and there are deep concerns about the economic impact of a canceled season especially if tourists from key markets like UK, Netherlands and Germany were excluded.

Under the new system charter and group tours from both EU (including UK) and Schengen countries will be permitted even if there’s more than 25 confirmed cases per 100,000 population in the previous fortnight – as long as they get a negative test within 72 hours of departure, and if their holiday lasts no more than 72 hours.

“We are at the verge of a significant step forward in opening Finland for international travel. The recent mitigations, announced by the Finnish government, to Finland’s travel restrictions will enable traveling to Finland from key markets like Germany and Norway” says Sanna Kärkkäinen, Managing Director of Visit Rovaniemi.

“Traveling to Lapland during Christmas season would be possible trough testing procedures. With this alignment we are talking about finally opening Finland for travel, however there are cost effects of course and uncertainty that will have an obvious impact on the number of travellers. Even though this is not the optimal outcome, this is a step to the right direction, something we can build on, together” Kärkkäinen adds.

If the package or charter holiday is longer than 72 hours then tourists will have to self-quarantine and get a second negative test as normal.

The move to open up borders has also been praised by the Central Chamber of Commerce, an organisation which doesn’t usually cheer for this current government. They say it should have a positive effect from an economic and employment point of view, and alleviate the tourist industry’s problems somewhat ahead of the winter tourist season.