Finland to lift travel restrictions to EU and Schengen states from 13 July

The EURACTIV Network provides you with the latest news on how the country is dealing with the coronavirus health crisis. [Shutterstock]

**This article is continuously updated with the latest developments.

On Tuesday evening (23 June), the Finnish government decided to lift restrictions on travel and tourism to a number of EU and Schengen area countries starting from 13 July. However, the countries with whom border controls will be lifted have to meet certain criteria.

Travellers coming from countries that haven’t recorded more than eight new confirmed COVID-19 cases per 100,000 persons in the past two weeks will not have to undergo border controls.

Currently, that criterion is met by Germany, Italy, Austria, Greece, Switzerland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary and Liechtenstein. Outside the Schengen Area, travel to Finland from Croatia, Cyprus and Ireland will be allowed.

The government said it will assess the overall situation of Schengen and EU member states on 10 July and promised to update the list of countries based on the development of the coronavirus pandemic.

Back home, recommendations regarding remote working will end on 1 August. That same day, persons over 70 will no longer have to avoid physical contact.

On 17 June, the government eased restrictions for bars, restaurants and cafes, as these can open at 4 am and close at 2 am at the latest.

Self-service buffets will also be permitted, yet businesses can only have 75% occupancy indoors, and customers must have their own seats.

If there are no setbacks, the government said it will lift remaining restrictions by 13 July, but customers will still have to have their own seat.

Ahead of the EU Council summit scheduled for Friday (19 June), the Finnish parliament’s constitutional law committee, the decisions of which are binding on the government, stated that the European Commission’s recovery package may be in breach of the EU treaties as it isn’t clear whether the EU can borrow money for the allocation of grants.

The Finnish government is finding it increasingly difficult to satisfy the country’s parliament when it comes to the soon-to-be-negotiated EU recovery package.

On 9 June, Finland’s new finance minister Matti Vanhanen said that he’d not seek to change the position of his government against the European Commission’s proposed Recovery Plan, which includes primarily grants.

Together with Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark, Finland has openly opposed the executive’s plan to help Eurozone countries recover from the pandemic. They all insist that loans should be granted in the form of rescue packages and not grants.

Meanwhile, Finlandwhich allowed for business travel and other necessary trips within the Schengen zone on 14 May with strict guidelines after suspending passenger traffic to Sweden, Estonia and Germany – lifted its border restrictions with Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Denmark, Norway and Iceland as of 15 June.

Passengers no longer have to undergo a 14-day quarantine upon arrival. However, travel restrictions to Sweden and Russia will remain.

As of Thursday (25 June), the number of diagnosed COVID-19 infections in Finland was 7.172 and the death toll stands at 327. So far, around 6,600 have recovered.

The universities of Helsinki and Tampere have been developing a vaccine for the novel coronavirus and the University of Helsinki is reported to enter a human testing phase by the end of June. First studies conducted at Helsinki University indicate that trained dogs could distinguish a healthy person’s from an infected person’s urine.

A hybrid strategy and steps to reopen

On Monday (15 June) the government made a decision to lift the use of the Emergency Powers Act, which had been in place since mid-March. Finland is quickly returning to normal conditions.

Previously, on 11 June, the government re-defined specifications concerning outdoor events. While the number of attendees at public events in enclosed outdoor spaces will still be restricted to 500 until 31 July, exceptions are allowed in certain cases, which comes to a great sigh of relief for this summer’s sporting events and festivals.

Spectators must be placed in their own seating areas or viewing sections, each of which has a maximum capacity of 500 persons. There also needs to be a buffer zone between sections and each of them must have their own access routes and services and the organiser needs to ensure safe distances and provide hygiene instructions. 

On 1 June, Finnish bars, cafes and restaurants re-opened with new guidelines and restrictions. The doors can open at 6 a.m. and alcohol can be served from 9 a.m. Closing time is at 11 p.m. Only 50% of the capacity is allowed and everyone must stay seated.

On terraces customers are advised to keep a two-meter distance. Also museums, libraries and swimming pools opened their gates. The number of customers is not limited, but the same two-meter rule should be applied.

Public gatherings are allowed as well, but only with a maximum of 50 people. Traveling abroad is not blocked, but it is not recommended either. Instead, the government has encouraged citizens to spend their holidays in summer cottages or traveling in Finland.

Following a two-day meeting, the Finnish government presented a very cautious plan on 4 May on how to reopen society. Many economists, however, had hoped for a more courageous approach.

Libraries will be first to open their doors with the borrowing of books and other material being permitted immediately. Also, while outdoor sports activities will be allowed, sports competitions and series have to wait until 1 June.

On 14 May, pre-schools and elementary schools returned to normal but restrictions on universities, vocational schools and other higher learning institutions will remain as remote learning is still recommended for the rest of the term. The issue has divided authorities, politicians, teachers and parents for weeks.

The Trade Union of Education in Finland were strongly against the opening arguing that it would put both teachers, children and their parents at risk. Attendance numbers differed widely between schools. In some areas, up to 20% of children remained home, in other parts of the country it was back to normal.

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin (SDP) outlined the country’s hybrid coronavirus strategy in a press conference on 22 April and is expected to reveal more decisions easing restrictions in early May. So far, the plan already outlines a gradual easing of restrictions as authorities “test, trace, isolate, and treat”. The prime minister explained that the country wants “to move towards even more widespread testing and tracing down those who have been exposed.”

PM Marin also announced that events of more than 500 people will be banned until the end of July, while gatherings of more than ten people will be allowed starting 13 May, and announced the opening of primary schools to likely start on 14 May after the PM, Education Minister Li Andersson (Left Alliance) and Science and Culture Minister Hanna Kosonen (Greens) took questions from children’s via video link.

To adapt to a post-COVID world, Finnish flag carrier Finnair and aviation authority Finavia tweeted on 12 May that staff coming in contact with customers at airports and in cabins will have to start wearing face masks as of Monday (18 May) until the end of August.

Customers will also have to respect one one-metre distancing at airports, larger seating intervals, enhanced sanitisation and reduced in-flight service, while those passing through airports and on Finnair flights were also strongly recommended to use masks. 

On 19 May, the government presented new social-distancing guidelines.

From then on, people over 70 years-of-age were again allowed to meet and mingle with others bearing in mind that they should keep a healthy distance, pay attention to hygiene and remember to wear masks. But no hugging.

More on Finland’s path to easing restrictions:

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The COVID-19 crisis “proves the need for an international rules-based order,” the EU’s Commissioner for International Partnerships Jutta Urpilainen said in an interview with EURACTIV.

A state of emergency respectful of freedoms

Since the outbreak, the Finnish government has been keen on pursuing an orderly legislative path that would respect freedom of movement and the right to work, rather than take shortcuts.

At first, Finland recommended people aged over 70 to stay home. Meanwhile, the country closed its schools and restaurants and banned gatherings of more than ten people. On 22 March, Prime Minister Sanna Marin hinted that if people continue to not follow the rules and avoid social contacts there will be tougher measures and instructions imposed.

On 30 March, the Finnish government extended the emergency legislation for a month until 13 May, despite there having been no exponential increase of new coronavirus cases, which according to healthcare specialists was seen as proof that restrictions and testing were working. While the government ordered the increase in medical testing, restaurants had to remain closed, ferries travelling between Finland and Sweden could only carry goods and freight as passenger traffic was no longer allowed.

A strict lockdown had only applied to the most-affected and 1.7 million-person-county of Uusima including Helsinki between 26 March and 15 April (initially planned for 19 April), the day the Finnish government decided to lift the region’s lockdown because isolating one area was no longer deemed necessary due to virus’ spread and controlling borders had overloaded police resources.

The abrupt move came as a surprise as medical experts had announced a peak in infections at the time the strict lockdown was lifted and shook the ruling coalition’s agrarian Centre party, which wanted the region to be closed for longer. Among the opposition, the populist Finns Party even accused the government of risking lives. The Prime Minister, however, appealed to common sense as the worst was yet to come. “In plain Finnish, now is not the time to travel to the summer cottage,” she said.

On 26 March, a survey commissioned by the Finnish Broadcasting Company showed that 49% of citizens consider the Government’s actions to tackle the coronavirus timely and appropriate, while 46% said that restrictions could have been tighter.

A previous poll, commissioned by tabloid Ilta-Sanomat showed that some 76% are against a stay-at-home order, with only 11% being in favour. Particularly high is the resistance in the age group of 65 to 79. Of them, 82% are opposing an order to stay at home.

New data shows a spike in suicides during the pandemic. The number of suicides in Finland has risen by 15% compared to March and April the year before, according to the national police board’s latest numbers.

According to mental health experts the reason for the increase may not necessarily be the virus per se, but the fact that those needing care have not been looking for it. In normal times, the spring season is also when more people attempt or commit suicide.

Read more about the lockdown measures:

Issues with protective medical gear

Although Taiwan donated 200,000 protective masks to hospitals situated in Finland’s northern parts on Tuesday (26 May), the country has faced a few issues when it comes to medical gear.

The organiser behind the donation was local politician Mikko Kärnä (Centre) who not only represents the Lapland district in the parliament but also acts as the Chairperson of the Finnish-Taiwanese friendship organisation. Both the receiving Oulu University Hospital and Janet Chang of the Taiwanese representation in Finland expressed their gratitude. Kärnä even went on to tweet that Taiwan should be accepted to join the WHO.

Previously, however, tabloid Ilta-Sanomat revealed on 18 April that Finland missed out on four large procurements to obtain protective gear before joining the joint EU effort on 27 March as the last EU member state because of lengthy bureaucratic procedures and miscommunication between health officials and the country’s social affairs ministry.

To fill the gap, authorities were forced to acquire 2 million surgical masks from China.

However,  Finnish authorities were forced to admit on 8 April that part of the shipment was not good enough to be used in hospitals, where protection was most needed and could only be used in nursing homes. The incident led to a ‘blame game’ between the government and the country’s biggest cities, especially Helsinki.

The day after (9 April), a parliamentary inquiry and a police investigation were launched, while colourful headlines about two dodgy businessmen, a Finnish beauty salon owner in Tallinn and a high-profile lawyer involved in the affair, a transfer to the wrong account and Hells Angels members hired as repo men had all grazed the news.

A source wishing to remain anonymous told financial daily paper Taloussanomat that “things had gone to hell,” adding that “mistakes do happen, but these would’ve been easy to avoid.” 

“Among civil servants, the whole project emanates a lack of understanding of how this kind of acquisition should be handled. It looks like someone had found the marketing material of some celebrity, trusted the word and thought that everything is okay,” a project manager of US-based company China Sage Consultants, Veli-Matti Ruismäki, had told Taloussanomat.

The same day, the Chinese embassy in Helsinki had promised full cooperation in solving the case, noting that it prioritised the high quality of its export goods. 

For more on how the Finnish medical sector has been coping with the crisis:

A €15 billion package and other economic measures

On 17 March, the country’s economic research institute known as ETLA predicted Finland’s economic growth to decline by up to 10%. On 16 April, the country’s finance ministry forecast the economy could shrink by at least 5.5% in 2020, adding that if restrictions related to the coronavirus were to last for six months, the figure could climb up to 12%.

Alcohol sales, at least, saw quite an increase. Indeed, statistics reveal that alcohol sales in Finland increased by 23% in April compared to the year before. Finnish national alcoholic beverage retailing monopoly, Alko, saw its sales of Rosé wine increase by 40% that month, while red and white wins saw a 35% and 28% increase respectively.

On 21 March, the Finnish Government agreed on a €15 billion package to help industry and businesses overcome the COVID-19 crisis, a move welcomed by the Confederation of Finnish Industries (EK). The government package, which is €8 billion more than the country’s 2008 financial crisis package, will have most of the money channelled through Finnvera, a state-backed financing company providing loans for businesses.

Moreover, in a bid to support the economy, the Finnish Board of the Financial Supervisory Authority has decided to lower the capital requirements of all credit institutions by 1%. And Helsinki will grant a state guarantee of some €600 million to support flag carrier Finnair, the shares of which are 55.8%-owned by the state.

Education Minister and Left Alliance chair, Li Andersson, has proposed a €100 handout for all citizens to kickstart the economy following the coronavirus health crisis as part of the 1 May rallies. “It is essential that we have the courage to act in order to avoid bankruptcies and to boost domestic spending. In the middle of the crisis, budget cuts would be the most certain way just to deepen the crisis,” said the minister, despite Finance Minister Katri Kulmuni (Centre) having announced cuts and postponement of reforms.

All that being said, employees in Finland were the quickest to start working from home and switch to ‘teleworking’ as 60% made the switch this spring compared to a 37% EU average, according to a survey published on Monday (12 May) and carried out by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound).

For more on Finland’s economic measures, read on:

Finland's Finance Ministry says economy could shrink up to 12% in 2020

Finland’s Finance Ministry forecast the economy on Thursday (16 April) to contract by at least 5.5% in 2020, and said it could shrink by as much as 12% if restrictions related to the coronavirus were to last for six months.

Flights to major European cities and a steady lifting of borders

National flag carrier Finnair announced on Monday (18 May) that it will resume flights in July to major European cities such as London, Brussels, Berlin, Paris and Moscow. It also plans to relaunch flights to Madrid, Milan, Rome and Barcelona in August.

Meanwhile, after lifting restrictions on travelling for work and other essential trips on 14 May between Finland, Estonia, Norway and Sweden, the Nordic countries decided on Friday (15 May) not to allow cross-border recreational travel because while they have managed to stabilise the spread of COVID-19, the situation in Sweden remains dire.

However, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have gone further and created the so-called “Baltic Bubble”, in which people can move across borders as long as they are symptomless and have not come in contact with someone carrying the virus. Finnish Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo (Greens) did not rule out the possibility of Finland joining “the bubble” and said that the government is monitoring the development closely.

In early April, Finnish authorities completely shut down the border with Sweden because of the country’s wildly different approach to managing COVID-19 and despite Sweden relying so heavily on Finnish nurses and doctors.

The border had already been closed since 19 March except for those commuting for work purposes. The reason being that in the last three days of March, the neighbouring Finnish Lapland saw its COVID-19 cases double and the source is suspected to be from Sweden.

Read more about Finland and its neighbouring countries:

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