Sweden continues U-turn on pandemic as death toll rises

Stockholm seals borders after consistent light-touch policies and hypocrisy of leaders

Supermarket in Gothenburg: New rules are being introduced as Sweden’s Covid-19 death toll passes 12,000, a rate per capita many times higher than its Nordic neighbours. Photograph: Fredrik Lerneryd/Getty

Supermarket in Gothenburg: New rules are being introduced as Sweden’s Covid-19 death toll passes 12,000, a rate per capita many times higher than its Nordic neighbours. Photograph: Fredrik Lerneryd/Getty

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Sweden’s pandemic pivot from exceptionalism to the European mainstream gathers pace on Saturday when it in effect closes its borders to foreign nationals.

Anyone entering the Nordic country must, from this weekend, present a negative test result no more than 48 hours old. The government in Stockholm says the new restrictions are necessary to keep out virus mutations, and come on top of recent travel bans on arrivals from the UK, Denmark and Norway.

The rules do not apply to permanent residents, and other exceptions include urgent family business, humanitarian grounds and cross-border travel for reindeer herding.

Following Denmark, Sweden has announced plans for an immunisation passport later this year – in the hope it will allow those who have been vaccinated to travel more widely.

The new rules come as Sweden’s death toll in the Covid-19 pandemic crosses the 12,000 mark, a death rate per capita many times higher than those of its Nordic neighbours.

Chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, architect of Sweden’s light-touch pandemic approach that shunned lockdown, has welcomed additional efforts to contain the novel coronavirus and its mutations.

“It shows a need for the restrictions we have in place to reduce the spread of infection,” he said.

Wearing of masks

For most of 2020, as one EU neighbour after another adopted face coverings in public, Sweden’s health experts insisted they could do more harm than good. Facing an infection spike in December, prime minister Stefan Löfven said new public health advice was now to wear face coverings during the morning and evening rush hour.

Johan Carlson, director of the Public Health Agency, stressed that face masks should not be considered a substitute for keeping physical distance, and the recommendation was limited to situations where this was impossible.

“We don’t think it will have a decisive effect, but in this specific situation it can have a positive effect,” he said.

On Monday of last week Mr Carlson was spotted during rush hour at Stockholm’s central train station without a face mask. Challenged, the health director said his agency’s guidelines excluded train platforms, where he said it was possible to keep a distance.

Days later he was spotted again without a mask, this time taking a bus in his home city of Uppsala.

“I didn’t notice that it was rush hour [and] the bus was empty so there was nothing that made me think of it,” he said. “It was, of course, embarrassing.”

Last month saw the resignation of Sweden’s civil contingencies chief after he travelled to the Canary Islands to spend Christmas with his family.

Restaurants and bars

Mr Löfven, the prime minister, was spotted shopping in a busy precinct in December, after advising Swedes to avoid crowded areas, while finance minister Magdalena Andersson was photographed renting skis just before Christmas.

Sweden’s shift to the EU mainstream approach is not complete: many Swedish rules are still recommendations rather than mandatory. Restaurants and bars are still open too, but with new capacity restrictions and a ban on the sale of alcohol after 8pm.

Critics accuse the government of disguising its policy shift as motivated by concern over virus mutations. Some also suggest Dr Tegnell’s warnings to be vigilant against a third wave of infection sit uncomfortably alongside earlier denials that Sweden was experiencing a second wave.

Mixed messages and frayed nerves are palpable, colouring an emotive debate over whether it is appropriate for parents to allow their children play outside in the snow – including in graveyards.

“If they knew someone who has lost someone to Covid, buried in that graveyard, they would take their kids and play somewhere else,” said Lotta Lundberg, a novelist and columnist with the Svenska Dagbladet daily. “At this stage, it’s hard to know if my fellow Swedes are naive, arrogant or cynical.”