Honourable Deputy Speaker of the Riigikogu!
Dear members of the Riigikogu!
Dear people of Estonia!
On 18 May, standing here in front of the honourable Riigikogu, I said that the emergency situation will end at midnight, but the crisis will continue.
I also said that the global course of the coronavirus pandemic and the economic downturn resulting from the restrictions would affect us for a long time to come.
Today, almost seven months later, we have largely learned to live with this virus. We still need to further develop these coexistence skills as they will be necessary until we can overcome COVID-19 with vaccines, medicines, and restrictions and responsible behaviour.
The second wave of the virus has once again increased the rate of infection across Europe. All countries tried to respond differently this time than in the spring and use the gained experience and knowledge. We still wanted to protect the health of our people in the best possible way but at the same time, mitigate the social and economic effects of the struggle. It is clear that we had to react, but not overreact.
One extreme is to do nothing, the other is to shut everything down completely, and all countries and all societies are looking for the right balance between the two. The harmful effects of the virus on our health, everyday life, society, livelihoods, and the economy are obvious. However, we managed to deal with it together in the spring, and we must deal with it again now. We do not have another choice.
Dear members of the Riigikogu!
As was the case elsewhere, autumn brought a new wave of the virus in Estonia. At first, it came in individual cases or in a few dozen, but by the end of October, in hundreds. We can see from research that our people’s sense of danger has grown again, which is appropriate.
People are also significantly more aware of the measures in place against the coronavirus. For example, the awareness of people is significantly higher than average in Ida-Viru County, which is currently one of the most infected regions in Estonia.
On the negative side, two out of five people estimate that due to the coronavirus-related effect, their family income has decreased, and the residents of Ida-Viru County have been most affected by this decline.
The coronavirus has spread rapidly in Ida-Viru, Harju and Tartu counties, and in other Estonian counties as well. As for the nature of the infections, we can broadly say in more than a third of cases, the place of infection is unknown. In a quarter of cases, people get infected in the family circle, in more than a tenth of cases, at work, and through other contact in the same extent. The latter includes hobby groups, events, friendships, places of residence, training, or elsewhere. We also know of cases where the virus has spread in hospitals, care institutions, educational institutions, or has reached Estonia from abroad.
In September and October, the disease spread more among younger people, but it soon spread to the elderly through them. As a result, the number of people in need of hospital treatment and the number of deaths due to COVID-19 have increased dramatically. In November, 47 deaths were registered in Estonia, which was eight times more than a month earlier.
As at this morning, there are a total of 313 patients in hospital, of whom 19 need ventilators. I wish them all a speedy recovery! The largest share of hospitalised persons is in Narva Hospital and Ida-Viru Central Hospital, but also in West Tallinn Central Hospital, North Estonia Medical Centre, East-Tallinn Central Hospital, and Tartu University Hospital.
Scheduled hospital treatment has now been reduced by about half and day care by a third to half. Unfortunately, the rising number of coronavirus patients negatively affects the ability of hospitals to treat other patients.
A total of 157 people have died in Estonia as a result of COVID-19. Almost 27,500 patients and their close contacts are being monitored by the Health Board. The 14-day infection rate per 100,000 inhabitants in Estonia is 465.77. Almost two-fifths of the daily infections are in the target group of people over the age of 50, and one in six new infections is over the age of 65.
When analysing these indicators, existing and new restrictions, and societal impacts, it can sometimes be difficult to understand what the main goal is.
The head of a large Estonian local government recently said that decisions do not always have to be completely correct and true, but they must be clear. For me, the level of ambition has been even higher than this, and I think it is important that decisions are clear, but also correct and adequate.
This crisis is constantly evolving and affecting all aspects of our society at the same time. Therefore, we need to consider every restriction and think about the consequences of closures and openings. This is done in very good and close co-operation between members of the government, officials, and advisory researchers. The role of the honourable Riigikogu is certainly very important here. We communicate with the Health Board, the scientific council, and all relevant authorities on a daily basis to make measured, weighted, and contextual decisions that are best suited to the situation.
Looking at the proposals submitted by the scientific council to the Government of the Republic, I can confirm that most of them have been implemented. The government has not taken any major decisions in the health crisis without also asking scientists and the Health Board for an assessment. We have also unequivocally trusted the experts in what preparations we need to make in order to cope with the virus.
This has been the right and effective way. We have been able to keep our infection rates and COVID-19 deaths lower than in most European countries during the second wave as well. Our goal is to make sure that our health care system withstands the pressure of the growing number of infections and that we can provide the necessary treatment to all Estonian residents, both scheduled and emergency treatment, for COVID-19 patients, as well as others.
In order to achieve this goal, it is necessary to make decisions that may seem complicated and difficult. In Estonia, the infection rate R0 has ranged between 1.1 and 1.2 in recent weeks. This shows that in order to reduce the spread of the virus, each of us must avoid one in five contacts in our daily lives. If we have the will for it, we will have the way, even with the restrictions in place.
The measures put in place by the government follow this simple idea, which should be kept in mind when being critical about the restrictions.
In making our choices, we have tried to keep Estonian life as open as possible, but at the same time, to protect the health of all of us while limiting the spread of the infection. We must also support people’s daily lives, maintain their mental health, protect our economy, ensure a good education, and make every effort we can.
Honourable people of Estonia!
As we emerge from the crisis, it is important that it is clear and secure for all of us. We must avoid fear, confusion, and harm as much as possible. We need certainty, clarity, and support. We need cooperation at every level. At every step, we must take into account the current situation and think about the future.
To this end, we have worked with our partners and society on two fronts at the same time – the COVID-19 vaccine and treatment, and the protection of health and life which is important until we can start with the vaccination. At the same time, we have sought a balance with the economy so that damage is kept to a minimum and the chances of the economy recovering are maximised.
This morning, we approved an initial COVID-19 vaccination plan in the government, which will identify key target groups and further vaccination arrangements. We are preparing to start vaccination as soon as possible. Our goal is to start in January. We are participating in a joint procurement of vaccines in the European Union and plan to join the pre-emption agreement of all seven vaccine manufacturers participating in the procurement.
Our state authorities and healthcare system are making preparations to be ready for deliveries of COVID-19 vaccines as early as next year so that we can start vaccinating as soon as possible. With the AstraZeneca agreement, Estonia will purchase the COVID-19 vaccine for 665,000 people, with Jannsen Pharmaceutica NV, for about 300,000 people, with the Pfizer/BioNTech agreement, for almost 300,000 people, with the Curevac agreement, for about 330,000 people, and with the Moderna agreement, for 117,000 people.
The common vaccine portfolio of the European Union diversifies the risks in case the development, introduction, or production of the vaccine should be hampered, and ensures that vaccination can be started in Estonia at the same time as in other European Union countries. In accordance with the agreements, the vaccines will be delivered to the Member States after the vaccine has been granted a marketing authorisation in the European Union, subject to a positive assessment by the European Medicines Agency.
Estonia has an agreement with the manufacturers that the vaccines will be delivered to a warehouse of the Health Board, where the necessary conditions for storing the vaccines will be ensured. Estonia will then arrange domestic distribution to vaccination points in accordance with the vaccine distribution plan.
The main purpose of procuring the COVID-19 vaccine and enabling the Estonian population to be vaccinated is to protect the most vulnerable groups who are more likely to be infected or for whom the disease may be particularly dangerous, and to protect workers providing vital services to ensure the normal functioning of society.
Firstly, in accordance with the plan, we will ensure the possibility of vaccination for health care professionals and other people working in health care institutions, residents and employees of care institutions, as well as the elderly and people with certain diseases. Then, to vital service providers and frontline workers, and then to everyone else who wants to protect themselves against COVID-19.
Our goal is to reduce and prevent deaths caused by COVID-19 and to provide free vaccination in 2021 to those Estonian residents who do not belong to the vaccination target group.
Dear members of the Riigikogu!
In a health crisis, we must also seek a balance between society and the economy. The coronavirus has not only affected human health but also economic performance. In many areas, activities have virtually come to a standstill, many people have lost their jobs. Economic indicators have followed the pace of infection. The number of registered unemployed started to increase from the beginning of the emergency situation and the negative trend continued until the end of May. The number of unemployed decreased somewhat in the summer months, but increased again in the autumn.
As at 10 December, 52,404 people were registered as unemployed in Estonia. Fortunately, unemployment has not risen far as much as was forecast in the spring and summer. The European Commission also noted that the rise in unemployment was lower than the economic downturn because policies have helped to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the labour market.
The sharp positive economic rise in the third quarter suggests that economic recovery may be faster than previously expected as the infection numbers decline. Therefore, the introduction of an effective vaccine may have a much stronger positive effect than previously predicted. On the other hand, it remains difficult to accurately predict the course of the pandemic in Europe and in the world as a whole. It must therefore be borne in mind that the spread of the disease still dictates economic developments.
The European Commission commended Estonia for appropriate economic policy measures that helped smooth economic fluctuations. With the help of the measures in spring and the efforts of the Estonian people and entrepreneurs, the effect of the decline phase was much smaller than the average of the Member States. Our recession in the first nine months of the year was 3.2 percent, which is more than two times lower than the European Union average.
On December 9, the Riigikogu adopted Estonia’s 2021 state budget. Thank you all very much for the debate and your good ideas! This budget is for the Estonian people.
We will strengthen health care, provide better social protection, accelerate smart development with the support of science, and continue to invest in the future with the green and digital revolution. With it, we can build a post-crisis Estonian economy that is greener, more digital, and more resilient.
I am also happy about the European Union’s next long-term budget and the planned recovery facility agreement in response to the economic situation caused by the pandemic. People and businesses affected by the coronavirus crisis will need additional support in the coming years. The economic recovery plan must help us emerge from the global pandemic even stronger if we can put the green and digital revolution at the service of the economy. The use of external assistance will focus on people-centred economic recovery, investment in health, increasing confidence, and major innovation.
In all of this, we have also considered people’s livelihoods. For example, the emergency call centre started receiving calls from people who simply wanted to talk about their concerns during the crisis. There are currently 12 professional pastoral counsellors working in Estonia who have completed telephone counselling training. They have provided help and support to around 3,000 people.
In October, the government also allocated an additional one million euros to 33 Estonian local governments to support people who have difficulties in coping. A total of 16.4 million euros is planned for support in the 2020 state budget. We also decided to support care institutions in order to alleviate the increased labour costs in those care homes where coronavirus carriers have been identified.
This morning, we reached an agreement in principle in the cabinet to support the people and companies of Ida-Viru County, which concerns local entrepreneurship, hobby education, hobby activities, private education, and sports. The entrepreneurship support also includes wage support to maintain people’s jobs and incomes. We also found an opportunity to contribute to the compensation of restrictions on hobby education, hobby activities, sports, and private education made at the end of last week in other parts of Estonia as well.
To help employees adapt to changes in the world of work, the Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund offers various labour market measures such as job search assistance, counselling, entrepreneurship training and start-up support, individual benefits, and much more.
It is important to invest in people’s skills to ensure the cohesion and competitiveness of society. We need to provide retraining and refresher training to match the knowledge, skills, and competences of our people with the needs of a changing labour market. We plan to continue this next year, when we have planned an employment programme of 56.7 million euros.
This crisis is a concern for all of us. This crisis is not the concern of one, two, or three counties, but the concern of our entire society which we can only resolve in the best possible way if we all work together. During the spring wave, we found strength in the approaching summer. Now, however, we can count on the arrival of the vaccines. In the spring, we talked about how overcoming the virus requires us to think of other people: it is our society, not my society or your society. This still applies.
This helped us in the spring and it will help us now. If everything goes as we rightly hope now, then next autumn will be completely different in Estonia and the world. In the meantime, let us help our loved ones, neighbours, and friends, let us call our mothers and fathers, grandmothers, and grandfathers. Let us care for each other! We must also be practical and critical, but this requires a clear sense of reality and a calm exchange of ideas.
The spread of the coronavirus continues to pose a threat to the health of our people and to the functioning of society and the economy. This is a concern for all of us, and slowing down the spread of the virus is in the hands of every Estonian. It is therefore particularly important that we all follow the guidelines of health experts. The virus spreads from person to person, and to combat it, we must not allow it to be transmitted.
One way to do this is to keep our distance – the farther apart we are, the more difficult it is for the virus to spread. However, distance alone may not be enough and keeping it may not always be possible. Even then, we can manage the risks: wear a mask in crowded places, wash your hands, and use the HOIA application. Let us be cautious and have common sense to ensure that we all have a beautiful but safe Christmas.
Honourable members of the Riigikogu!
A Tartu ambulance worker recently wrote that they have begun to admire their colleagues more than ever and are now certain that they would trust them with their lives and the lives of their loved ones at any time. This is a beautiful notion because many of our front-line workers also spend the coming holidays at work so that we can feel safe in their care.
I sincerely thank all our health professionals who treat us, which is hard and sometimes thankless work. For the same reason, I sincerely commend our rescue officers, police officers, alarm centre staff, teachers, social workers and the Health Board, as well as state and local government officials, researchers, workers, and businesses. I thank everyone who gives it their all to make sure we are all well. I also thank everyone who contributes with their daily work so that we, as a society and individually, can get through this crisis safely.
I also thank you, the honourable Riigikogu, for the many debates and all of your contributions. Thank you! I wish us all strong health and wisdom for the future! Have a safe Christmas with your family!
Good wishes to the whole of Estonia!