Chairman of the opposition Conservative People’s Party (EKRE), Vice President of the Riigikogu Martin Helme and Minister of the Interior Kristian Jaani disagreed on the necessity of amendments to the Communicable Diseases Prevention and Control Act (NETS) on the “Otse Postimehest” webcast.
Helme described the bill as seeking a police state and tyranny, while Jaani believes it is needed for more effective cooperation between the Health Board and the police. NETS will head into its second reading next week, while EKRE promise to resort to parliamentary obstruction.
Mr. Jaani, there are people who perceive amendments to the Communicable Diseases Prevention and Control Act as an attempt to lay down a police state. How would you assuage them?
KRISTIAN JAANI: There is no police state nor will one be created. The police are trusted by 92 percent of people in Estonia. It is a great responsibility and I’m sure the police will be able to bear it perfectly also in the future. Talking about new rights (for the Health Board and the Police and Border Guard Board – ed.), we are really talking about a misdemeanor. [Amendments to] NETS will be used to create elements of a misdemeanor based on which to process situations where people ignore restrictions in extreme cases. Whereas I would emphasize that we are talking about restrictions during a medical emergency. Such elements of a misdemeanor will be introduced and the board and PPA given the right to process them. We have no such misdemeanor today and the whole process is extremely bureaucratic. I think we do not benefit from bureaucratic processes. If the PPA witnesses people ignoring restrictions, officers will intervene, explain the situation and record the circumstances. However, from there, materials need to move between two agencies that causes a lot of red tape. Is that really necessary? I believe that a functional state based on the rule of law should have no such bureaucracy.
Meaning that these extra rights will only apply in the case of an emergency?
KJ: There needs to be a Health Board designated health emergency and a request for the PPA to help. The police will not have these rights otherwise. The process of involvement has taken place through professional assistance requests so far.
Involvement is possible without an emergency or an emergency situation.
KJ: It is possible, while the Health Board would have to provide a very good explanation of why it cannot handle the situation itself as a capable law enforcement body. But the board cannot keep on top of all of its tasks in the pandemic today.
Mr. Helme, what do you perceive as the main problem with this amendment?
MARTIN HELME: Allow me to point to another problem before I get to the heart of the matter. Namely, cold-blooded attempts to mislead the public. We were given another heap of misinformation just now (in Jaani’s answers – ed.). These powers will not be limited to emergencies.
The problem is that the bill aims to give the Health Board and PPA powers that should only be used in emergencies or emergency situations. It includes a lot of previous sections that expand those powers. For example, there is no definition of a novel and dangerous infectious disease. Basically, the Health Board could declare the common cold a novel and dangerous malady.
The police would be allowed to enter private property without court authorization, study movables and remove and detain people by force. The Health Board would also be authorized to order coercive treatment. The bill is one of a police state and tyranny. All tyrants justify efforts to concentrate power by referring to efficiency and expediency! But this efficiency and expediency happens at the expense of fundamental rights of citizens. The latter have been provided in the Constitution and international conventions Estonia has joined.
We amended the draft legislation when we were still in the government and saw the same proposals from the social affairs and interion ministries. Everyone dusted off their dreams! EKRE kept it from happening. We said it was contrary to the rule of law and citizens’ rights. These things have now returned in the wake of the new government.
Mr. Jaani, is it true that the police will be given the right to enter a private residence, for example, to put an end to a private party should a case of a dangerous infectious disease be established?
KJ: The PPA will not do anything before it has been involved by the Health Board. Activities needs to follow an involvement process in which it is agreed for what purpose the PPA is being involved.
MH: This has been solved through professional assistance. The bill is not necessary for this purpose.
KJ: Looking at the extent of PPA involvement in supervision and relevant expectations, professional assistance applications are not for such situations. They are meant for performing one-off tasks. The package of NETS amendments introduces involvement rules for which will be laid down with a government regulation.
Involvement stands for the Health Board that has crucial tasks in a healthcare crisis being able to delegate processes to other agencies. It does not necessarily have to be the PPA, it can be the Rescue Board or local governments. Passing on such tasks using professional assistance requests in a situation where the healthcare crisis has lasted for over a year is inexpedient. Will the PPA abuse these powers? Certainty not. I can assure you as interior minister.
Do we really need such extreme measures? The police have so far maintained that a kind word or a reprimand are the best tools.
KJ: That remains the case. I cannot see where this might prove necessary but the situation today is that an officer has to go through a very complex process to be able to respond to a situation where a person’s life or health are perceived to be in jeopardy.
MH: We have no definition for a novel and dangerous infectious disease. I can give examples from two local governments where there have been attempts to break up EKRE meetings. Where the local government has threatened us with the police should we hold a meeting.
We only had a small crowd of five or six people. We can see attempts to misuse authority today and you’re looking to expand that authority. Whereas there is no need. We can declare an emergency or emergency situation that provide for extraordinary measures today. However, what this is doing is introducing permanent emergency situation measures for when there is no emergency.
In which new situations would the authorities be able to use direct coercion?
KJ: For example, when someone has rented out an apartment for a party. And there are 50 people there whereas three of them are known COVID-19 carriers. This could result in a situation where 50 people are infected, go home and continue to infect more people.
MH: That is just the problem that we are creating a very open health target based on which to greenlight use of coercion recently used only to maintain public order and fight crime.
KJ: Whether we come to those measures does not depend on arbitrary decisions.