Social ministry secretary general axed over handling of crisis

Minister of Health and Labor Tanel Kiik (left) and Secretary General Marika Priske. PHOTO: Mihkel Maripuu

Minister of Health and Labor Tanel Kiik (Center) and Minister of Social Protection Signe Riisalo (Reform) on Monday made a proposal to the government to remove from office Secretary General of the Ministry of Social Affairs Marika Priske. “We have arrived at the need to make a difficult decision together and propose the government release from office Secretary General Marika Priske to find someone with a fresh outlook,” Kiik explained.

Asked whether Priske was sacrificed in a situation where the ministry has taken a lot of flak over its handling of the coronavirus crisis, Kiik said that everyone has made mistakes in the crisis – including ministers, the government and officials. He added that this applies not just to Estonia and that the coronavirus pandemic has left all states in a similar situation. “Right now, looking at feedback from the public and private sectors, other ministries and politicians, principal pressure and adversity seem to concern the top echelons of the social ministry and officials.” The minister said that the planned staff changes are aimed at restoring peace. “These substitutions and updates are meant to dispel this adversity,” Kiik said.

But why Secretary General Marika Priske who was praised by both Kiik and Riisalo at yesterday’s press conference? The health and labor minister emphasized that the debate does not equal underestimating Priske’s contribution. “She has held the post for seven years. They include a lot of major and minor victories. Personally, I would emphasize that a lot of work has been done at the ministry,” Kiik said in recognition of the outgoing secretary general. He later admitted in an interview that the decision followed what was a thorough debate last week. “We can say we had clarity in terms of what was going to happen on Sunday and agreed on the timing, how to break the news and other communication details this morning. The realization that these changes are, unfortunately, inescapably necessary had already dawned,” Kiik admitted.

Decision aimed at restoring peace

Priske said she does not want to think of herself as a victim. “I have always considered myself a top executive, and I believe I am one. An executive and secretary general must always consider ministers’ right to make changes, want something more,” Priske said, describing the development as a natural part of the process. “Looking at tensions in society and pressure being put on the ministry to make changes, I believe it is sensible to solve it on the level of the secretary general to restore peace for people who have been working hard for the last 18 months,” she explained. Analyzing decisions made in the crisis, Priske said she doubts there is a single person who finds in hindsight that everything was handled perfectly. “Of course, some things could have been done differently. But thinking about the information we had for making decisions, whereas they weren’t always our decisions – not everyone involved in solving the crisis answers to the ministry – the processes of what to do and decide has not been as simple as one might think,” Priske said, adding that while she is not too critical of herself, she is capable of believing that it is always possible to do better.

Priske has not made any future plans at this stage. “I will take a time-out and try to get enough sleep. It is a great joy to be an ordinary citizen who does not have to answer her phone or read her emails every few hours even on her days off,” the secretary general said.

Great expectations are placed on Priske’s successor. “The new secretary general must firstly be able to take care of the team that has been working on solving the crisis – keep the peace at the workplace. Secondly, they must be able to think strategically and think ahead not just months but possibly years in a situation where the crisis and pandemic could stay with us for a very long time. Thirdly, they must be able to involve the private sector in healthcare and beyond, as well as other ministries and local governments in solving the crisis,” Kiik said in terms of the future secretary’s tasks.

Kiik and Riisalo did not wish to name potential candidates on Monday. Priske’s successor will be appointed directly instead of holding a public competition due to lack of time and looming vaccination targets. The new secretary general will also have little time to get settled.

The social ministry’s time-critical approach seems newfound, however, as concrete steps were only taken after Auditor General Janar Holm’s letter to PM Kaja Kallas (Reform) from July 27 in which Holm points to the rigidity of the vaccination effort, slackening pace and those responsible not having a plan. This prompted the PM to cut short her vacation, return to work to solve the crisis and demand answers from Tanel Kiik. Kallas said that the National Audit Office’s analysis proves there are serious problems in vaccination organization.

Vaccination needs to pick up momentum

Asked about his own assessment of how the ministry has handled the crisis, Kiik evaded giving a straight answer but admitted the pace of vaccination leaves something to be desired. “The social ministry and its healthcare department have been in charge of the vaccination process for over six months. We are behind the EU average, while we are ahead of the Eastern European average and, of course, the global average in terms of the pace of vaccination. But the expectation and the European Union’s goals are more ambitious, which is why we must consider how to boost vaccination in the final summer month, render immunization options more flexible, involve the private sector and make up for lackluster progress in July to boost vaccination coverage and be prepared for the fall season, which is when viruses tend to spread even more effectively.”