1.2 Physical distancing
Physical distancing was first based on recommendations and general advice. As the situation evolved the Government has also taken more strict measures to stop the spread of the virus.
Many municipalities took measures within their powers before state decisions, for example in testing or service restrictions.
Regulated by the Communicable Disease Act (2016), local school closures were applied in early March, before the formal closure of schools nationally took place March 17th 2020. Prior to that, classes or entire schools were closed when teachers or students were found to be infected.
On March 12th 2020 the Regional State Administrative Agencies (RSAAs) got and advice from the Government to ban meetings with over 500 people. Further, on March 16th 2020 the Government decided on additional measures to address the coronavirus outbreak in Finland, which took force on 18 of March 2020.(1) These included the following:
- The premises of schools, educational institutions, universities and universities of applied sciences as well as other education institutes were closed and contact teaching was suspended. As an exception, however, pre-primary education organised in schools and contact teaching for grades 1–3 continued for the children of parents working in sectors critical to the functioning of society or pupils requiring additional support. Parents and guardians who are able to arrange childcare at home were requested to do so. While contact teaching was suspended the government expected that teaching across all educational institutions should be organised in alternative ways, such as with distance learning and self-learning. Matriculation examinations (final exams for upper secondary school) were carried out by 23 March 2020 according to the condensed schedule. According to the Ministry of Education in late March, 84 % of children in pre-primary education, 93 % of pupils in grades 1–3 and 91 % of pupils with decision on special-needs support did not participate in contact teaching in schools.
- All national and municipal sports and cultural facilities (including museums, libraries, swimming pools, youth centres and clubs) as well as day care services for the elderly, rehabilitative work facilities and workshops were closed. This applied to private and third-sector operators and religious communities also. In April the Ministry of Education and Culture clarified that, for example, outdoor sports facilities should not be closed on the basis of the Government decision.
- Visits to housing services for the elderly and other at-risk groups were prohibited. Visitors were banned from care institutions, health care units and hospitals. Asymptomatic family members of children and critically ill individuals, family members of those in hospice care and spouses or support persons in the maternity ward are permitted to visit patients on a case-by-case basis.
- Public-sector employees were instructed to work from home if their duties allow. Several private employers gave instructions for distance working earlier than the public sector. The COVID-19 epidemic was included in guidance from Confederation of Finnish Industries, for example, recommending that workers should be allowed to stay away from work on their own announcement (2) during the epidemic, a policy which was opposed before by employer organisations. Tampere University became the first University to implement a policy advising working from home on 11th of March after positive COVID-19 cases were identified from University campuses.
- General guidance was issued that persons over 70 years of age must refrain from contact with other persons to the extent possible (quarantine-like conditions), excepting the members of parliament, the state leadership and elected officials in local government. After the restrictions have been at place for a month a discussion on whether it is justified to issue restrictions based on person’s age has emerged. A number of gerontologists and social policy experts have problematised the strict age-limits and called for more tailor-made restrictions. It has also been raised that the restrictions should have solid regulatory based.
- Public events and gatherings with more than 10 people were banned and the public was strongly advised for not spending unnecessary time in public places. The authorities have allowed gatherings of specific groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, if deemed critical for functioning of the associations.
On March 30, the government extended the measures announced on March 16 until May 13 2020. In addition, they stated that preparations will be made for extending the exceptional arrangements in education until the end of term, if this is deemed necessary for containing the epidemic.(3)
The extensions included that all restaurants must be closed as of April 4 2020. The restrictions apply to all restaurant operations except for preparing food for take away and for delivery by food couriers. These restrictions will remain in place until May 31.(3)
On April 9 the Finnish universities announced that due to the coronavirus situation, organising traditional entrance examinations is not possible without compromising the safety of those involved. The universities disseminated information on the changed admission procedures at the end of April, and increased the ratio of students admitted on certificates alone, reducing numbers of people attending admission tests. Similarly, universities of applied sciences across the country have decided that their entrance examinations in Spring 2020 are organised online. (4)
On April 22 the Government decided that public events and gatherings of more than 500 people should continue to be banned until at least 31 July. As far as events in late summer and early autumn are concerned, an assessment will be made no later than the start of June.
Schools have continued under cities, local government and the Regional State Administrative Agencies guidance with local temporary closure and move to distance teaching as well as partial moves to distance teaching. For example in Helsinki temporary closures have been applied as well as maintaining schools partially open. School lunches will be provided for students in distance learning with food packages for those in quarantine (12)
1. Finnish Government (16/03/2020) https://valtioneuvosto.fi/en/artikkeli/-/asset_publisher/10616/hallitus-totesi-suomen-olevan-poikkeusoloissa-koronavirustilanteen-vuoksi
2. Confederation of Finnish Industries 26/03/2020 https://ek.fi/ajankohtaista/uutiset/2020/03/26/ek-suosittelee-yrityksia-varautumaan-koronaviruksen-mahdolliseen-laajamittaiseen-leviamiseen/
3. Prime Minister’s Office (30/03/2020) https://vnk.fi/artikkeli/-/asset_publisher/hallitus-jatkaa-poikkeusoloihin-liittyvia-toimia-13-toukokuuta-saakka?_101_INSTANCE_iemYRQDn9G8r_languageId=en_US
4. UNIFI (01/04/2020) https://www.unifi.fi/uutiset/university-entrance-exams-to-be-replaced-by-alternative-admissions-procedures-this-spring/
5. Finnish Government (22/04/2020) https://valtioneuvosto.fi/en/article/-/asset_publisher/10616/hallitus-paivitti-suomen-koronavirusstrategiaa-rajoitustoimia-mahdollista-purkaa-asteittain-ja-hallitusti
7. Finnish Government (29/04/2020) https://valtioneuvosto.fi/en/article/-/asset_publisher/10616/hallitus-paatti-varhaiskasvatuksen-ja-perusopetuksen-rajoitteiden-purkamisesta
8. Finnish Government (11/06/2020) https://valtioneuvosto.fi/artikkeli/-/asset_publisher/10616/hallitus-tarkensi-linjaustaan-ulkotilaisuuksien-yleisomaarista-1-7-alkaen?_101_INSTANCE_LZ3RQQ4vvWXR_languageId=en_US
9. Finnish Government (17/06/2020) https://valtioneuvosto.fi/artikkeli/-/asset_publisher/10616/hallitus-linjasi-lievennyksista-kokoontumisrajoituksiin-ravitsemisliikkeiden-toimintaan-ja-vierailukaytantoihin?_101_INSTANCE_LZ3RQQ4vvWXR_languageId=en_US
10. Government Communications Department (23/6/2020) Government updates policies on border issues, remote working and recommendations for persons over 70 years of age, https://vnk.fi/en/-/government-updates-policies-on-border-issues-remote-working-and-recommendations-for-persons-over-70-years-of-age
11. Restrictions imposed due to COVID-19 to change as of 1 August. Press release 503/2020. Government Communications Department, July 31, 2020 https://vnk.fi/en/-/restrictions-imposed-due-to-covid-19-to-change-as-of-1-august
12. Päivitys Merilahden koulun poikkeuksellisiin opetusjärjestelyihin. Helsinki city press release. https://www.hel.fi/uutiset/fi/kasvatuksen-ja-koulutuksen-toimiala/merilahden-peruskoulussa-poikkeuksellisiin-opetusjarjestelyihin
On 22nd April the Government met to update what is seen so far as generally successful Finland’s coronavirus strategy. Therefore the Government suggested that Finland can transfer gradually to a “hybrid strategy”, referring to a move from extensive restrictive measures to enhanced management of the epidemic. Alongside the controlled dismantling of restrictive measures, Finland’s strategy focuses on testing, tracing, isolating and treating. The idea is that the progress of the disease can be impeded through extensive testing, contact tracing of identified infections and chains of transmission, isolating those who are ill and quarantining those who have been exposed. As part of the strategy, the Government is continuing with preparations to introduce a mobile application for use in the management of the epidemic. A precondition is that the application must be voluntary and must ensure privacy protection. (5) For the purpose of exit strategy measures and mitigation of impacts government invited a science panel consisting of expertise in a number of fields from Finnish Universities and research institutes, including on children, schools, economic and environmental policy (6). While the wide range of expertise was welcomed, it was noted that it lacked expertise on aging and gerontology.
On 29 April 2020, the Government decided to lift the restrictions on early childhood education and care and those on primary and lower secondary education. Contact teaching in early childhood education and care as well as primary and lower secondary education will resume on 14 May. (7)
On 4th May in its meeting the Government decided on the following measures to lift the restrictions. These were also adopted in the form of resolution on 6th May 2020.
Immediately as of 4th May 2020:
- Borrowing of books and other material from libraries
As of 14th May 2020:
- Outdoor recreational facilities will be opened as of 14 May, subject to the restrictions on gatherings.
- Primary schools and early childhood education facilities
As of 1st June 2020:
- Opening of restaurants (gradually and provided that this is supported by the effects of lifting the current restrictions and by the subsequent general epidemiological assessment)
- Sports competitions and series can be resumed with special arrangements
- Opening public indoor premises: national and municipal museums, theatres, the National Opera, cultural venues, libraries, mobile libraries, services for customers and researchers at the National Archives, hobby and leisure centres, swimming pools and other sports facilities, youth centres, clubs, organisations’ meeting rooms, day care services for the elderly, rehabilitative work facilities and workshops.
- Restrictions on gatherings are eased from 10 to a maximum of 50 persons.
The Government recommends that higher education institutions and secondary level schools continue distance teaching until the end of the semester. The recommendation on working from home is also continued. Residents aged over 70 years are advised to continue avoiding physical contacts. Also, the restrictions concerning visits to health and social care units will remain in force. On 6th May new advice was issued by MSAH regarding social distancing of over 70. While quarantine-like arrangements are recommended, those over 70 can meet their families and friends including grandchildren outside with a 2 metre distance.
After lifting the first restrictions, on 18th May, a few primary schools and early childhood education units in Helsinki-Uusimaa region reported single confirmed COVID-19 cases with several dozens exposed.
On 11 June 2020 the Government made further specifications to its policy on organising major outdoor events as of 1 July. The number of attendees at public events in enclosed outdoor spaces is still restricted to 500 until 31 July 2020. However, the permitted number of attendees may be exceeded in certain cases. For outdoor events where there are several sections or demarcated areas intended for audiences, a total audience of more than 500 persons may be permitted starting on 1 July with special separation arrangements. This requires that the event attendees can be placed in their own seating areas or viewing sections, each of which has a maximum capacity of 500 persons. Safety must be ensured in each viewing section or area by limiting the number of visitors in order to ensure safe distances and by providing hygiene instructions in line with the restrictions that entered into force on 1 June. (8)
On 17 June 2020 the Government agreed on further easing on restrictive measures (9).
• Large events: The Government recommends that as of 1 August 2020, without any significant setbacks in the epidemiological situation, events with more than 500 persons may be organised in both indoor and outdoor spaces. However, precautions concerning hygiene and physical distance need to be taken care of by the event organisers by for instance limiting the number of visitors. The Regional State Administrative Agencies will make decisions on the matter in July for a maximum of one month at a time. If the epidemiological situation so allows, all restrictions concerning the organising of events can be lifted in which case all indoor and outdoor events would be permitted without restrictions on the number of attendees.
• Easing the temporary restrictions on the operations of food and beverage service businesses The Government will issue a decree on the matter on 18 June. The restrictions are based on the Communicable Diseases Act. The Government agreed that the restrictions on food and beverage service businesses would be lifted as of 13 July. Even then, however, a seat must be reserved for each customer.
o As of 22 June 2020, the decree would be amended so that food and beverage service businesses can open at 4.00 and must close by 2.00.
o Alcohol sales can start at 9.00 at the earliest and must stop at 1.00 at the latest.
o Buffets would be permitted.
o Three quarters of the number of persons permitted in the serving licence or building plan could be present in the indoor premises.
o All customers would still need to have their own seat.
o Food and beverage service businesses should arrange their indoor and outdoor furniture and serving practices so that customers would not be exposed to the spread of COVID-19. In particular, food and beverage service businesses should make sure that there would be no unnecessary congestion in their premises and that customers and parties could enter the premises while maintaining a safe distance from one another.
o Food and beverage service businesses should ensure that customers can wash or sanitise their hands upon arrival. Food and beverage service businesses should have visible instructions on handwashing, maintaining safe distances and other practices in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
• Dismantling the recommendation to avoid visits to hospitals.
o The lifting of the restriction concerns persons receiving hospital treatment in both specialised and primary healthcare.
• Units providing 24-hour care and treatment must provide their older clients and others belonging to risk groups with the opportunity to meet their loved ones safely, for example by ensuring adequate protection in an outdoor location or by arranging separate, protected meeting facilities. However, the Government recommends that access to the customer premises of units providing 24-hour care remain limited to the staff of the unit.
On June 23, based on the improved epidemiological situation the Government decided to lift the recommendation for persons over 70 to avoid physical contacts. However, the Government still continued to advice to take a cautious approach using individual discretion in close contacts and taking the overall situation and the individual risk factors into account. The Government also stated that its recommendation on extensive remote work would end on August 1. (10)
On August 1, the regulation issued by the Regional State Administrative Agencies on organising indoor and enclosed outdoor public events and meetings with more than 500 attendees was lifted as planned. At the same time, the Government’s recommendation on extensive remote work ended. (11)
On 24 August the MSAH issued guidance to regional state administrative agencies limiting gatherings to 50 people, and beyond that strictly following physical distancing guidance. The regional state administrative agencies then issued this guidance to be effective. Following the announcement of the guidance, the MSAH reported that there was a spelling mistake in their guidance letter, and the guidance was intended to recommend limiting gatherings from 500 people upwards. On 26 August, after deliberation, the Regional State Administrative Agencies, however, informed the public that regardless of the mistake in the MSAH guidance letter, their guidance will limit gatherings to 50 people. More participants to events can be taken if guidance on physical distancing and hygiene is followed.