By Nina Aura, Junior Associate, Aliant Finland
On March 16, 2020, Finland declared a nationwide state of emergency due to the COVID-19 outbreak. As a result of this, the Finnish government submitted a decree implementing the Emergency Powers Act. The two commissioning decrees for the Act were given on March 17 and 19, respectively. Last time the Emergency Power Act was in use during wartime. Therefore the use of the Emergency Power Act is very exceptional and it demonstrates the significant influence which COVID-19 has on society. The Act transfers the legislative power from the parliament to the government. Furthermore, also the legislative procedure is accelerated which enables swift amendments.
Among the Emergency Powers Act, another law that plays an important role is the Communicable Diseases Act. Communicable Diseases Act enables Regional State Administrative Agencies to issue decrees which aim to prevent the spreading of communicable diseases. Based on such a decree, restaurants and cafes have been closed except for takeaway since April 4. Starting from June 1, they can open for the public with special preventive cautions. Public gatherings have also been limited. The limit of people will be increased from 10 to 50 people as of June 1 and remains in force until further notice. Public gatherings of 500 people have been prohibited until July 31.
Furthermore, the Regional State Administrative Agencies issued decisions to close all schools and transfer to distance learning starting from April 13. Students have returned to schools gradually and controlled on May 14.
The purpose of the Emergency Powers Act is to protect the population in exceptional circumstances and to safeguard its livelihood and the country’s economic life. An exceptional condition is defined as, among other things, a very widespread dangerous infectious disease with a particularly serious impact, corresponding to a major accident. The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has been considered to meet this definition. Based on the Act the government prohibited entering or leaving the Uusimaa region without a valid reason during March 28 and April 15.
The Emergency Powers Act stipulates the obligation to work in exceptional circumstances in critical sectors in order to ensure the functioning of society. The authority may then issue a work order to the person, which must be complied with. The Act will increase public sector resources and, if necessary, make private sector resources available to the public sector. At the same time, non-urgent functions are reduced.
The provisions of the Emergency Powers Act and its deployment decree, as well as the regulations issued on the basis thereof, also allow for exceptions to work duties, overtime, and annual leave. Powers may be used only for purposes that are necessary to achieve the purpose of the Emergency Powers Act. The use of powers must also respect the principle of proportionality, i.e. they must be proportionate to the objective pursued.
The extension of the Emergency Powers Act was last discussed on May 12. According to the report committed by the Constitutional law committee, the legal grounds for extending the validity of some provisions remain valid.
Furthermore, non-residents’ arrival in Finland is restricted. Also, the government has issued a recommendation that residents of Finland should not travel abroad.
In addition to the Emergency Powers Act, The Finnish government has reacted to the situation by submitting several temporary changes to legislation. The amendments to the Employment Contracts Act, the Maritime Employment Contracts Act, and the Act on Co-operation in Enterprises are in force until 30 June 2020 (government bill HE 26/2020). Moreover, the amendments to the Unemployment Security Act are valid until 31 July 2020 (government bill HE 27/2020). Both of these government bills have been confirmed on 31 March 2020. However, the terms of collective agreements on layoff must be complied with despite changes in the law.
In addition to legislative measures, the government has issued recommendations concerning remote work and self-isolation of those over 70 years of age. These recommendations will be re-evaluated after the Summer. Furthermore, unnecessary travelling abroad is not recommended until further notice. Commuting across the Schengen internal borders was allowed under certain conditions from May 14.