Social ministry breaking in the Health Board

Merike Jürilo and Tanel Kiik.

PHOTO: Madis Veltman

While head of the Estonian Health Board Merike Jürilo will resign, the decision was strictly recommended so to speak. Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik, in whose administrative area the agency lies, confirms that he suggested Jürilo resign already on June 1.

The head of the board notified the ministry of her decision late on Wednesday, apparently motivated by statements by PM Jüri Ratas and Kiik over loss of trust on the pages of Postimees the same day.

This is where the messages from the board and the ministry diverge. Tanel Kiik said that he voiced criticism in Jürilo and made a proposal for her to resign in early June. The outgoing director of the board said criticism took her by surprise. “I felt cooperation with the ministry and the social minister was very good,” she said, adding that it was not the proposal to resign but rather claims that there had been no trust for a long time that took her by surprise.

Jürilo has been under fire from the government since the start of the coronavirus crisis. A source described the Health Board as reverse to the government’s forward in the crisis. Jürilo swore that such criticism had never reached her. “No one had expressed these sentiments to me. The social minister never described the board or my actions as counterproductive,” she told Postimees, adding that criticism mediated by the press is not constructive.

Constant disagreements

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas did not specify when differences that could no longer be overcome began. “I have said before that a reliable relationship between the board and the government needs to be restored. It matters because the coronavirus has not gone anywhere,” the PM said during a government press conference. “There is no trust today. I believe it (Jürilo resigning – ed.) is the best possible solution,” Ratas told Postimees in an interview.

The decision of whether to remove the health board’s director is up to the social ministry. Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik refused to highlight incidents that led to loss of trust, while he said that the government and the board have crossed swords on more than one occasion. “Looking at the entire three to four-month period, there have been cabinet meetings where the government’s position has diverged from that of the board,” he said.

It is hardly news that the government condemned the board’s decision to allow a volleyball game that hosted athletes from Italy in Saaremaa, while differences allegedly continued into the emergency situation. Postimees’ source described the board as sticking to Excel spreadsheets during a time that required rapid decision-making.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu said that differences between the government and the board have endured throughout the crisis. He gave the examples of the board’s standoffish attitude toward masks and testing, as well as the volleyball match that is believed to have started the Saaremaa outbreak. Giving the latter a green light was obviously a mistake, Reinsalu finds. “I called the social minister only to learn the board had already greenlit the game. Attitudes that have been highlighted by the media have not gone unnoticed by members of the government,” he said.

“The fact is that the head of the Health Board had a different vision for all important decisions the government made. Talking about the emergency situation or whether people should even be tested,” Reinsalu admitted.

Tanel Kiik neither confirmed nor refuted Jürilo having disagreed with the government on the emergency situation. “We laid down the emergency situation just in time. It was a government decision and one I supported,” he said.

Merike Jürilo said that a debate over whether to declare an emergency situation was entirely fitting and did not associate it with differences. “The question at the time was whether Estonia required emergency situation measures or whether simple emergency measures would have sufficed. It was a question of measures needed to achieve a certain effect. These were perfectly reasonable debates,” Jürilo stood her ground.

Race against the second wave

Scientists agree that Estonia could see a second wave of the coronavirus in fall. The social minister said that now was the time to clear the air and restore trust in the board in the form of a new director general. “Such decisions cannot be made in the middle of an emergency situation or emergency, nor can they be postponed until fall. We have time to make the switch now,” he said.

The agency’s new head will be found by way of a public competition.