Sweden’s neighbours offer medical help as second Covid wave intensifies

Country paying a price for eschewing a formal lockdown and the use of face masks

An information sign wishing Merry Christmas and asking to maintain social distancing in a pedestrian shopping street in Helsingborg, southern Sweden. Photograph: Johan Nilsson/EPA

Finland and Norway have offered medical assistance to Sweden, as their neighbour faces an increasingly severe second wave of coronavirus that has stretched clinical staff and intensive care capacity to the limit in some areas.

Sweden has yet to formally ask for outside help but authorities in Stockholm have requested assistance from the country's military and could get aid from less hard-hit regions.

"We have not received an official request for help, but we assess on a daily basis what the hospital situation looks like and we are, of course, ready to help Sweden if we can," Kirsi Varhila, permanent secretary at Finland's ministry of social affairs and health, told Svenska Dagbladet newspaper.

Her counterpart in Norway, Maria Jahrmann Bjerke, told state broadcaster NRK that the Nordic countries had a co-operation agreement that allowed medical assistance to be shared at short notice.


“If the Swedish authorities turn to us for assistance, we would have a positive attitude to it,” she said.

Norway and Finland have experienced far milder first and second waves of Covid-19 than Sweden, which has been an exception in Europe in eschewing a formal lockdown and the use of face masks.

Sweden has reported 1,400 Covid deaths in the past month compared with about 100 in Norway and 80 in Finland, each of which have half its population. Sweden reports deaths differently to the rest of Europe, which makes knowing their exact level difficult, but analysts at Nordea, the Nordic lender, believe they could be higher than their peak in April.

The region of Stockholm on Wednesday warned that 99 per cent of its intensive care beds were full, while healthcare unions have warned of large numbers of workers quitting as infections, hospitalisations and deaths continue to rise. About 3,600 health personnel have quit in the Stockholm region since the start of the pandemic, according to state broadcaster SVT, around 900 more than over the same period last year.

Johanna Sandwall, preparedness director at Sweden's National Board of Health and Welfare, said on Sunday that Sweden had no plans to seek help from its neighbours yet. "The situation in healthcare is very strained in several parts of the country but we have a nationally available capacity to meet the need right now," she said.

Legal restrictions

Irene Nilsson Carlsson, senior public health adviser at the board, said: "We are worried about the situation but not that it will run out of control. There are tensions in the intensive care units, a heavy workload for staff. But we can expand the capacity beyond what we have at the moment. So it's not an acute crisis."

Sweden has toughened its recommendations at national and local level on the precautions people should take but has shied away from legal restrictions, a strategy that still enjoys significant public support.

The centre-left government is working on an emergency pandemic law that would allow it to close shops and curb use of public transport but it would not come into force until mid-March.

State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell said repeatedly in the spring that Stockholm would soon reach herd immunity, but it has been hard hit again in the second wave.

Bjorn Eriksson, Stockholm's director of healthcare, said this week that the region had only one intensive care bed vacant.

“It cannot be worth this for after-work drinks, to do Christmas shopping or meet people outside your household. The consequences are awful.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020