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Freedom of movement sacrified to protect Finnish population

Freedom of movement sacrified to protect Finnish population

| Text: Bengt Östling, photo: Heikki Saukkomaa/Lehtikuva

Rapid measures and tough restrictions characterised the first Finnish reactions to the corona pandemic. As the only Nordic country it locked down an entire region, which included the capital city, from the rest of Finland.

Freedom of movement and the open Nordic borders have been put to the test during the corona crisis. For now, Finland’s borders are closed to all “non-essential” movement in principle. The border to the Uusimaa region, which includes the Helsinki Metropolitan Area, is patrolled by police and military conscripts.

Finland’s government has asked the few ferries still carrying supplies not to sell passenger tickets from Sweden, Estonia or Germany. Planes can only carry out essential passenger transport, which includes carrying Finns and others returning home from other countries.  

It is still possible to travel by boat from Åland to mainland Finland.

The Finnish National Emergency Supply Agency pays millions in support for essential transport between Sweden and the Baltics/Central Europe. The support is meant to guarantee enough capacity to keep a total of seven vessels running. The Finnish Seafarers’ Union has protested against other vessels flying a Finnish flag getting the support. 2,500 Finnish seafarers have been furloughed until the summer, and they want their jobs back, the union pointed out.

Stop for Swedish hospital staff in Åland

The autonomous region of Åland was instructed just before Easter that hospital staff commuting from Sweden could no longer go there. Any staff would have to self-isolate for two weeks before being allowed to work in Åland, because they would be arriving from abroad. Ålanders have the same right to life and health as people in the rest of Finland, said Minister of Justice Anna-Maja Henriksson.

Around ten doctors and 30 nurses are no longer able to travel to do occasional shifts in Mariehamn. The Finnish government has promised to send necessary doctors from mainland Finland to Åland instead. This is not good enough for Åland, which has close contacts with Sweden and a great need for Swedish-speaking personnel.

What is impossible in Åland is desirable in Norrbotten

Ålanders are surprised they cannot receive Swedish hospital staff when things are fine the other way around, to the north. It is still possible to commute to Sweden. Many of the Nordic ideals for open borders are a reality in the Cap of the North. There is broad cooperation, a complementing business structure and labour market on both sides of the border from Tornio/Haparanda northwards.

But now the border with Sweden and Norway is closed to “non-essential” traffic, e.g. tourism, shopping trips and for Norwegians who want to visit their second homes in Finnish Lapland.

The Finnish government wants to further reduce movement in the commuter region near the border. But authorities in Norrbotten appealed to the Finnish government to allow Finnish hospital workers to continue working on the Swedish side of the border.

The Nordic exchange can continue

Only the most essential work commutes remain. Any worker must carry a certificate from their employer showing that their job is necessary. The Finnish government would have liked to see Finnish hospital workers staying put for now in the place where they work.

In the very least, hospital workers should only move between their home in Finland and their work in Sweden, as if they were in self-isolation. Swedish hospitals that are dependent on Finnish labour have promised to make this work.

This means Sweden’s Emergency Supply Agency demands open commuter traffic to a certain extent, in both directions. But 95% of border traffic is reported to have disappeared already.

Some in Finland have argued for shutting the north-western border completely. The Minister of the Interior Maria Ohisalo (the Green League) told a press conference earlier that Sweden should not be left in the lurch. Finnish hospital staff are needed there. In return, Finland has been promised intensive care beds at Swedish hospitals in the north.

Minister of Justice Anna-Maja Henriksson (the Swedish People's Party) has also highlighted the need for a functioning Nordic cooperation. Finland has been listening to the Swedish government’s pleas. There is no reason to weaken the existing good Nordic border cooperation, said Henriksson.

But Finland is following infection patterns closely. The number of infections has risen on the Finnish side of the border and the government is ready to impose further restrictions on border traffic if necessary.

The hardest restriction: internal border checks

The capital region and the entire southern Finnish coast have been closed off from the rest of Finland since 28 March. It is an attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Two thirds of infections in Finland are found in Helsinki and Uusimaa, and attempts are made to protect the rest of Finland from this.

Only people with essential business have been allowed to cross the border. Police and conscripts have been guarding more than 40 border crossings. In the beginning, it was estimated that some 700 police would be needed for the operation. Retired police have been recruited and shifts can last up to 16 hours, according to the Finnish Police Union.

Quite a lot of Finns have been considered to have essential business and have been allowed to cross the border. In the days before Easter, more than 40,000 vehicles travelled in and out of Uusimaa every 24 hours. This included necessary workplace commuting, public assignments, health visits and more.

The goal has been to stop the serious coronavirus from spreading. Erecting this internal border which stops freedom of movement in Finland has been considered to be the greatest and most serious limitation of citizens’ rights in Finland during the pandemic.

Time-limited legislation

The emergency legislation, which has been put in place parallel with the communicable disease act, scarcely allows for such drastic measures. The legislation does not allow for long-term closures. After three weeks, the government must present new compelling reasons for prolonging the measure. 

Prime Minister Sanna Marin (Social Democrats) promised before Easter that the government is not preparing to prolong the shutting of the border between Uusimaa and the rest of Finland. 

Filed under:
Borders to Uusimaa reopening
Limits to the freedom of movement across the borders with Uusimaa are being lifted as early as today, Prime Minister Sanna Marin (Social Democrats) said during her government's press conference on Wednesday 15 April, according to Swedish Yle. Non-essential travel should still be avoided, however.

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