Skertsos: Gov’t and Science Working Together for Tackling the Pandemic

September 29, 2021

ATHENS — "The pandemic provided us – amid this unprecedented upheaval in our lives – with the opportunity to step up and improve the way we design public policies, but also the way we conclude to decisions as policy-makers," Minister of State responsible for the coordination of government policies, Akis Skertsos, said on Wednesday during a workshop organised by the Joint Research Center of the European Commission (JRC) in collaboration with the General Secretariat for Coordination of the Presidency of the Greek Government.

The workshop entitled "Science for policy making in Greece" is part of JRC's online series of workshops "Strengthening and connecting eco-systems of science for policy across Europe," which has attracted more than 500 participants all over Europe.

"One could actually say that the level of coordination of government entities and science but also the sophistication of public policy and technological tools that were developed during covid, have sky-rocketed compared to the pre-pandemic era," Skertsos said.

"Who could have imagined for example that just a week ago, nature, the prestigious scientific magazine, would come out with a cover like this, encouraging other world countries to follow the example of tiny Greece with regard to targeted sample testing in our borders thanks to EVA," the State Minister said explaining that Eva is a sophisticated algorithm crafted last year with a team of brilliant scientists, mathematicians, statisticians and doctors, in order to monitor traveling in a controlled and safe mode in our points of entry.

For a country like Greece, whose economy depends largely on tourism, saving what could be saved during the summer of 2020 was of an existential importance, especially taking into consideration that most of the countries chose to remain closed to traveling. "Thanks to EVA, we managed to allocate efficiently our limited – at the time – testing resources to tourists coming from countries that were epidimiologically strained at the time. This way we saved a quarter of our annual tourist revenues in 2020 without putting in peril the health neither of our citizens nor of our tourists," he underlined.

Skertsos stressed that the foundation under the EVA algorithm, which is basically the necessity to learn how to live and co-exist with the virus for some time, has been the driving force of the government strategy since the beginning. He added that this mindset has been the key pull factor for policy makers in order to advance both thinking and actions in ways could not have been imagined a year and a half ago.

Skertsos said that he would divide the pandemic into four phases in terms of public policy response up to now.

"The 1st phase of horizontal strict lockdowns was a phase of shock and absolute necessity because of complete absence of data, evidence and clarity. Since we were blind with regard to the perils of covid at the time, we were obliged to take very strict horizontal measures for almost two months in order to save lives but also with a huge cost for our economies. The second phase from may to November 2020 was the phase of acknowledgment that the pandemic is here to stay for quite a few months and that we will have to live with unprecedented public health measures in order to monitor and curb transmissibility. New tools for increased testing and tracing of covid cases were developed and also variations of smaller or bigger lockdowns were enforced periodically with a 'trial and error' element always embedded in them since we trying something new. The third phase from December 2020 to may 2021 was the phase of preparation for the return to normalcy thanks to the vaccines. States had to design and implement unmet up to now national vaccination campaigns in order to immunize our populations. These vaccinations programs have had extremely intensive logistics for all countries, but also especially for a country like Greece with a population scattered in hundreds of islands and many off-the beaten road remote mountain communities. Finally the 4th phase that we are in as we speak, begins as of may 2021, when thanks to the vaccination of a significant part of our population we managed to remove most the restrictions in public life and we are quite confident that such restrictions will not come back again but only for the unvaccinated and only if needed in specific areas with lower immunization rates."

"For a small country like Greece that was just coming out of 10 year long recession after a severe debt and financial crisis, with a hard hit public health system and state overall due to deep budget cuts, the pandemic posed an enormous challenge which could have literally ravaged us," the minister said.

"However if you look into the numbers you will see that for a state that was infamous in the past for red tape and slow government response in crises, we have managed to keep our losses due to covid below EU-average, our public health system withstood the challenge and our economy survived and is now growing faster than the rest of EU," he explained and added: "We owe these results to our strategic decision to work hand in hand with the scientists, follow their advice, develop new monitoring tools, but also we owe our results to the 'top down' and 'hands on' management approach of the pandemic by our Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who ever since the beginning of the pandemic has been and still is attending at least 2-3 inter-ministerial meetings per week, non stop for 18 months now, in order to have a full grasp of all the latest trends in the evolution of the pandemic and provide us with his public policy guidelines."

Skertsos shared some insights with specific examples of the tools deployed in coordination with inter-disciplinary scientific team of doctors, mathematicians, behavioral psychologists and economists, in order to maintain a sufficient monitoring of the pandemic.

"First, we needed a business intelligence unit and system to log in every covid patient in every hospital of Greece. Our country scored very low in all digital indexes until 2019 and especially in information systems that are interoperable. So this was not an easy task because hospitals were not connected in a unique platform with the ministry of health. This tool didn’t exist before the pandemic and was created during the first two months. It provided us with clarity on regional spikes of the virus that produced increased hospitalizations and helped us to manage more efficiently our limited public health resources and direct our public health measures in a more targeted way to the regions that were each time affected more.

Second we developed dedicated online platforms for citizen participation in free of charge, massive PCR, rapid and self-testing provided by the state. Thanks to our innovative self-testing policy, and by giving out 1 to 2 free self-test every week to our citizens through our pharmacies, Greece ranks in the first 5 EU countries in massive testing as we speak, according to ECDC. This way we have managed to track and isolate faster positive covid cases thus keeping the R indicator of transmissibility at low levels and the overall positivity rate below 1% in our population as we speak.

Third, We also invested a lot of our efforts in transparency of data and dissemination of crucial public health indicators to our citizens. In our online interactive map at covid19.gov.gr every citizen and tourist can have a quick and aggregated view of covid, hospitalization and vaccination trends in every single region of Greece according to our green, orange, red light coding system. Providing the society with information and clarity has been very crucial in navigating this difficult period.

Fourth, Greece was also the country that tossed on the table back in January 2021 the idea of a European digital vaccination certificate, an idea of our Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis that would facilitate traveling across Europe and assist the gradual return to normalcy. Thanks to the leadership of EU President Ursula von der Leyen, this idea became a reality in record times for European standards just in 2 months, resulting in much safer traveling and assisting the faster rebound of our economies.

Fifth, another tool that has proved extremely helpful for monitoring the controlled re-opening of our economies has been the covid free app. This is a mobile application that was created by the government and given out to citizens and businesses in order to control the entry of customers into closed or open-air non-essential venues, like restaurants, bars, concert halls, theaters, cinemas etc, with an emphasis on super spreading activities. This application has been used since last July and will be the norm until the final lifting of all public health measures. It provides with data to target our inspections in a more efficient way.

Sixth, making our vaccination campaign completely digital and with a push and not pull approach, was also a strategic decision that proved essential and returned many dividends back. Thanks to our online vaccination appointment platform we went directly as a state to our citizens via text messages that would recommend to them the exact, date, time and location of their vaccination appointment. For a state that used to pull citizens to long and chaotic lines in various government activities in the past, this has been a pivotal and -I dare to say- revolutionary approach in terms of public engagement and facilitation of the vaccination process. Via this system we have also been able to spot regions with low participation in the vaccination campaign and target them more efficiently with appropriate resources.

Finally, thanks to our online platform at mybusinesssupport.gov.gr, we managed to concentrate all state-aid measures towards businesses in a digital one stop shop within our independent public revenue authority. This helped us to run extensive background checks in order to secure that every state aid policy has been well-targeted to those really in need. This was achieved by comparing their tax filings before the pandemic and during the pandemic. This way we were able to track the tax compliant over the tax evasive companies and prioritize the first in our state aid plan and exclude the second."

However, the biggest challenge for policy makers during the pandemic, as he said, was to save lives but also keep the economy alive and the society in peace. "Thanks to our coordinated and data-policy-driven approach we are proud to say that we have managed to keep a balance between protecting public health but also the economy. With the help of the tools and policies I have mentioned, and many more that we simply do not have enough time to discuss, Greece is currently growing -according to Eurostat numbers, faster than the rest of Europe, with a 7% growth rate during the first semester of 2021 and with a tourist season that surpassed our expectations in tourist inflows and revenues, without at the same time putting at risk the health of our population and visitors."

The minister stressed that this was achieved along with a stimulus package of 41 billion that was designed and targeted with an aim to preserve and sustain jobs and businesses we now see record levels of employment for the first time in 11 years over 4 million Greeks in jobs, an increase in private investment and exports of 16 to 20%, and record levels of bank deposits which means a bigger appetite to spend and invest in our economy in the coming months and years.

"These figures provide us with a lot of optimism that the future looks very positive for Greece," the Minister of State underlined.

Skertsos reiterated that Covid-19 has acted as a catalyst for the Greek government to use knowledge intensive policy instruments in the design of our strategy to tackle the pandemic. "We see every crisis as an opportunity. So the window was wide open and the government grasped the opportunity," he stressed.

"Greece was one of the first countries to submit and get the green light from the European Commission for our national recovery and resilience plan but also for the next regional cohesion funding programming period, he said and added: "So while dealing with the pandemic we never stopped our reform effort in other areas of the state and the economy according to our government plan in order to transform Greece into a country that anyone would like to work, live, invest and visit. This is our vision."

Skertsos concluded his speech saying that he believes, as comparative evidence so far showed, that the government has produced a successful strategy in combating this systemic crisis and turned Greece from a country with poor records in evidence based policy making to a power house where every public policy needs to have a solid foundation of data before coming into implementation.


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