Justice Minister interview: “Travel restrictions can’t be taken lightly in a democratic and free society”

Anna-Maja Henriksson explains why the government felt it necessary to introduce travel restrictions for Uusimaa, and why it was equally necessary to lift them again.

File picture of Justice Minister Anna-Maja Henriksson (SFP) at Helsinki briefing, 3rd April 2020 / Credit: Laura Kotila, VNK

When the Finnish government introduced internal travel restrictions on the southern Uusimaa region at the end of April to slow the spread of Covid-19, critics responded with overwrought comments about their human rights being breached, and living inside a police cordon.

Three weeks later when restrictions were suddenly lifted on 14th April, yet more critics said it was too soon, and the lockdown should be extended to protect the rest of the country from Uusimaa’s viral threat.

When it comes tackling the coronavirus pandemic, Justice Minister Anna-Maja Henriksson (SFP) is finding out you can’t appease all of the people, all of the time.

“A state of emergency hadn’t been declared in Finland since World War II, and it’s a huge and important decision. Without declaring a state of emergency, it wouldn’t have been possible to restrict travel” she explains. The restrictions were approved by MPs in a Parliament vote.

Henriksson, 56, has finished the ministerial work week in Helsinki and is driving back to her home town of Jakobstad on the west coast. She says there was hardly any traffic on the roads as the car left Uusimaa, a hopeful sign that although restrictions were lifted a few days before, people are heeding government advice and not taking unnecessary trips.

“The imposition of travel restrictions can’t be taken lightly in a democratic and free society because respect for law and human rights are some of the most fundamental values in our society in Finland” she tells News Now Finland.

“Respect for law means that also in turbulent times, our decisions have to be based strictly on law.”

File picture of Finnish Government discussions at House of the Estates, Helsinki, 8th April 2020 / Credit: Lauri Heikkinen, VNK

Government’s internal discussions

Anna-Maja Henriksson has been the chair of the Swedish People’s Party for almost four years, and served as Minister of Justice in two parliaments, under four different prime ministers.

So she’s no stranger to coalition governments, nor the internal hand-wringing of consensus politics.

The decision to impose the Uusimaa lockdown, and then later to remove the roadblocks ahead of schedule, came at the pivot point where science meets the law.

“We have listened to healthcare authorities all the time, and when we took the decision [to impose the lockdown] they said to us it was a necessary decision to make” says Henriksson.

“At the point of the travel restrictions the government had already taken a number of other actions to limit the spread of the virus and declared the state of emergency” she explains.

After less than three weeks, when the spread of coronavirus in other parts of Finland no longer made Uusimaa a uniquely hot spot, and when there was no particular medical rationale to extending the restrictions, the legal threshold for imposing it in the first place was no longer met and the government had to act almost straight away.

It’s also a happy coincidence that dropping the restrictions eased pressure on the police and army conscripts called in to help them maintain a network of roadblocks in the region.

Not all the government parties were reportedly so eager to lift the lockdown, and opposition figures had called for it to be extended. But in the end there was no legal justification to take any other course of action than to cancel the restrictions.

“We had a very long discussion, and most of the ministers even myself didn’t figure out that we would make the decision already on Tuesday because it came so fast. But the government was told here and now we don’t need these restrictions any more and we had to act. For me it was a clear thing” says the Justice Minister.

File picture of traffic on Länsiväylä heading west out of Helsinki, 17th April 2020 / Credit: News Now Finland

Calling for common sense

As the spring weather slowly starts to improve, there will undoubtedly be a temptation for Uusimaa residents to pack up their cars and head for weekend cottages outside the region.

The government is calling for restraint and common sense.

“It’s a tough time for everyone, but I think people in Finland do understand, and when they see now we have been able to flatten the curve, and we have have been able to keep the amount of patients in hospitals to a level that is in fact quite low” says Henriksson.

“We have seen the restrictions have had an effect, people have been very good at following instructions. I want to believe in common sense and responsible behaviour of Finnish people. But it is still extremely important to avoid contact, and important to stay at home and when you go out keep a safe distance from other people” she adds.

Henriksson stresses that it’s important to remember coronavirus is a global pandemic and not just restricted to a specific region of the country – although if specific legal and medical conditions were met again, Uusimaa or any other region could have travel restrictions imposed.

“I think it’s good to think we are in this together, and we all need to behave in a responsible way no matter where in Finland we live.”

Anna-Maja Henriksson leads ministers out of a press briefing in Helsinki, 7th April 2020 / Credit: Lauri Heikkinen, VNK