Government betting on COVID-19 certificate

Henry-Laur Allik
, ajakirjanik
«Wear-a-mask» campaign in public transportation.
«Wear-a-mask» campaign in public transportation. Photo: Mihkel Maripuu

The government decided on Thursday to restore the obligation of wearing a mask on public transport and introduce tougher event participant ceilings for venues that do not have infection control measures. The government wants to avoid additional restrictions in spite of the infection rate climbing, placing its hopes on Covid certificates.

Thursday brought 222 new cases of the coronavirus, hiking the 14-day case rate per 100,000 people over the 100 mark and warranting the infection threat level moving to orange. The government reacted by ordering masks to be worn on public transport vehicles starting Monday and lowering participant ceilings to 50 for indoor and 100 for outdoor events if infection control checks are not made starting from August 9.

Event venues and restaurants that check people’s Covid vaccination or recovery status using certificates are not subject to these limitations.

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) explained that the public transport mask obligation will be universal. “The reason we are not making an exception for those who have been vaccinated is simply that there is no way to verify that. People are very close to one another for a short time [taking public transport]. It is the same elsewhere in the world,” Kallas explained.

Members of the government’s COVID-19 scientific advisory council Andres Merits and Krista Fischer welcomed the mask obligation and believe it to be effective.

Professor of virology Merits said that wearing a mask undoubtedly slows the spread of the virus, which is why the government’s decision is logical.

“Social distance cannot be maintained on public transport, whereas I cannot imagine checking for certificates on urban lines,” Merits said. He does not consider masks to be necessary when going to the grocery store.

Professor of mathematical statistics Fischer said that the current infection rate warrants a broader mask obligation. “We could clearly say that it is recommended everywhere else, that people should wear a mask when visiting a crowded shop. I wear one when I go to the grocery store,” Fischer said.

Aim to keep society open

Sworn lawyer Paul Keres said that the universal public transport mask obligation is legally sound. “People who are vaccinated can also be infected and spread the disease as far as I know, which is why it makes little difference whether one is inoculated or not in public spaces,” Keres said.

“If vaccinated people can still spread the virus to others, obligating them to wear a mask is a relatively non-invasive and sensible measure,” Keres opined.

Former justice chancellor, sworn lawyer Allar Jõks challenged government restrictions in court in May as he found that restrictions in spring were not sufficiently justified. He did not wish to comment on the recent measures before reading the government’s explanatory memo.

Is the government willing to lay down additional restrictions should the infection rate keep climbing or will use of COVID-19 certificates be prioritized instead?

PM Kallas said that the cabinet will try to avoid ordering new restrictions and aim to keep society open for those who have been vaccinated or can otherwise prove they are safe.

“People are tired of restrictions. We need to create the conditions for keeping society open for the vaccinated. The majority being forced to limit its activities to protect the minority has been the focal point of this crisis. Now, everyone can get vaccinated, meaning that the [vulnerable] minority can protect itself,” Kallas explained, adding that it is difficult to convince people to comply with restrictions in this situation.

The government will rely on Covid certificates to keep society open. “The restrictions are very simple, 100 people outdoors and 50 indoors if the organizer is not checking immunization status. Checking certificates allows one to organize larger events,” Kallas said in summary.

Sutt: Checking certificates needs not be complicated

How should entrepreneurs check Covid certificates? Minister of Entrepreneurship and Information Technology Andres Sutt (Reform) said that visual checks are enough.

“It is a matter of social value judgments. Do we aim to cheat or can we just rely on our values to produce the certificate without it being a problem,” Sutt said, adding that deploying QR-code readers is unnecessary. “Let us not overcomplicate the task.”

“No one expects businesses to check patrons on the door. Producing one’s certificate before ordering is enough. It can also be on paper. It will work,” Sutt remarked.

Andres Merits and Krista Fischer perceive risks with sticking only to visual checks.

“If these checks are allowed to become purely formal, the measure will be of little use. It is likely people will be able to reproduce those QR-codes quite easily,” Merits said.

Fischer said that it might not be difficult to falsify vaccination certificates if people will not be asked to produce ID. “They will not be hard to fake. You just need to take someone else’s certificate with you to the event,” Fischer said.

She added that use of certificates needs further analysis in terms of whether they can be reliably checked.