UPDATED: Estonia bans flying to seven countries with high coronavirus infection risk

The Estonian minister of economy, Taavi Aas, on 17 May signed an order, banning flights to and from Estonia with seven countries – the United Kingdom, Sweden, Belgium, Denmark, Turkey, Belarus and Russia – where there’s a high risk of being infected with the novel coronavirus; however, the ban has already raised many eyebrows and drawn criticism in Estonia.

“To slow down the spread of the virus, we can first open routes with countries where the spread of the virus is small enough based on the statistics of the last 14 days,” Aas said in a statement.

“For the sake of clarity, I emphasise that although the order also bans flights to Denmark at the moment, it is predicted that the epidemiological situation there may have improved enough in the coming days to be able to fly there.”

Taavi Aas posing with his Soviet-made Volga in 2017 (Taavi Aas’s Facebook page).

The economy ministry bases the authorisation and prohibition of destination countries on the morbidity rate of other countries, which must be 25 or fewer people per 100,000 inhabitants during the last 14 days to open the route.

The ministry reviews the epidemiological situation in the countries of destination daily and opens or restricts the opening of routes according to the spread of the virus.

On 18 May, the head of the European Commission’s (EC) representation in Estonia, Keit Kasemets, said the Estonian government has to notify the EC about the ban. He wrote in the social media that if the ban lasts longer than two weeks, the EC has to give its consent – and as of 18 May, the commission had not received Estonia’s notification.

On 19 May, the ministry backtracked with regards to Denmark and announced it allows flight routes to be opened between Estonia and that country.

The ban is in effect until 7 June

As of 18 May, routes to Germany, Poland, Norway, Austria, Latvia and Lithuania are likely to open without restrictions.

“At the same time, the opening of routes also depends on the rules of the destination country itself. As in Estonia, there are restrictions upon travelling to other countries as well, which should be considered when planning trips,” the ministry said.

AirBaltic, the Latvian flag carrier, was planning to open Tallinn-Copenhagen (Denmark) service. Photo: An airBaltic Airbus A220-300.

The restriction of destination countries banned is valid from 18 May until 7 June, after which the economy ministry, in co-operation with the Estonian Health Board, will assess the further necessity of the restriction.

The restriction between Minsk and Tallinn applies from 24 May, as people are expected to return to Estonia through Minsk until 23 May.

The Minsk flight has been operational throughout the pandemic

Raimo Poom, the Estonian journalist working for Eesti Päevaleht, a daily newspaper, was heavily critical of the Aas’s decision. Among other aspects, Poom pointed out that curiously, the Tallinn-Minsk flight was one of the two operational flights throughout the crisis (the other one was Tallinn-Frankfurt).

“Let us emphasise that throughout the epidemic, this [Minsk] flight has been operational – alongside Frankfurt – and Aas did not blink an eye,” Poom wrote on his personal Facebook page.

“So what has changed now? Has some kind of a ‘third eye’ opened in the ministry of economy that only now realised that Alexander Lukashenko (the authoritarian leader of Belarus – editor) has ‘treated’ the virus with vodka, a parade and without ordering restrictions? Why then could you fly [to and from Minsk] before and now you suddenly cannot?”

Minsk National Airport, Belarus. Photo by Vasyatka, shared under CC BY-SA 4.0 licence.

Pure populism, not fighting the virus

Poom added that in a press release, sent to the Estonian media outlets, Aas did not provide any piece of information as to whether anyone had been infected with the coronavirus during the last two months when the Minsk-Tallinn flight was operational – or what kind of threat it was.

“That [data] could have been the basis. But rather, a baseless decision has been made that would send a signal: look, we will ban, so it would look good to the people. This is called pure populism, not fighting the virus,” he said.

“I argue that it is more important to let people who want to travel as soon as possible, even if they do so initially at their own risk and in small numbers – and not intimidate them in such a small and already cut off place as Estonia with more absurd bans,” Poom stated.

An Estonian MEP, Urmas Paet, also expressed criticism and bafflement over the decision. “This is really weird way to assert oneself. To most of these places people have been and are able to fly via Helsinki or Frankfurt, because Finnair and Lufthansa are flying,” Paet wrote on Facebook.

Taavi Aas (Centre Party) became the minister of economic affairs on 29 April 2019. Before assuming the post, he served as a vice mayor and mayor of Tallinn in the corruption-plagued city government, controlled by the Centre Party. Before entering politics, he served as a CEO and a finance director of dairy cooperatives in Põltsamaa and Järva-Jaani.

Cover: The Minsk-Tallinn-Minsk flight service, operated by the Belarusian airline, Belavia, was operational throughout the emergency situation – yet now, Taavi Aas decided to ban it. Photo courtesy of the Tallinn Airport.

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