Finland declared a state of emergency on 16 March 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Emergency powers were granted under the Emergency Powers Act to safeguard the functioning of the healthcare system and to protect those at risk, and legislation has been enacted to help prevent the uncontrolled spread of infections. By international comparison, our efforts to curb the epidemic have been quite successful.
Healthcare and social welfare services personnel have been on the frontline, taking action to curb the epidemic and caring for patients. It has been their responsibility to make sure healthcare and social welfare services continue to be available, despite the emergency conditions. Making this happen has required incredible flexibility and resilience from personnel, as well as legislative work to respond to the crisis.
Under the Emergency Powers Act, the Government has issued and the Parliament has, after ex post examination, adopted decrees that give employers the right to postpone or suspend annual holiday already granted. Employers are permitted to order employees to work overtime without the employee’s specific consent, and deviate from provisions regarding rest periods. They are also permitted to extend the notice period that employees are required to comply with to no more than four months. These emergency provisions laid down in the decrees will be in place until 30 June 2020.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the authorities have had to prepare for a dramatic and abrupt rise in the number of patients, which might coincide with personnel getting sick or becoming quarantined. In these situations, to ensure continuity of services, employers may have resorted to measures such as calling employees back to work from annual leave to replace a colleague in quarantine.
Exceptional measures the last resort
The decree strictly limits the use of exceptional measures to situations where it is necessary and proportionate in view of the coronavirus epidemic. These measures are to be used as a last resort only, in a situation where the flexibility provided by normal legislation and applicable collective agreements is no longer sufficient. According to the Constitutional Law Committee, use of emergency powers is not permitted to alleviate personnel shortage caused by ordinary sick leave or insufficient personnel resourcing. It is extremely regrettable if emergency powers have been misused, as it has been suggested in public discussion. Supervision of the use of these powers falls under the responsibility of the occupational safety and health authorities.
There have also been some good news recently: The number of reported coronavirus infections is decreasing. Unfortunately this does not mean that the virus has disappeared. It may reactivate after the restrictions on movement and public gatherings are lifted, and we may see an increase in the number of infections. Therefore, it is important that we continue to take steps to ensure preparedness for treating coronavirus patients, even when the emergency powers are no longer in effect. The only way to do this is to pay special attention to occupational health and safety, and the health and wellbeing of care workers.
Tarja Kröger, Senior Ministerial Adviser, Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment