Sweden set to begin easing coronavirus restrictions

Nordic country has second-highest Covid infection rate in EU, but is better placed on hospitalisations and deaths

People at a shopping centre in Solna, near Stockholm, last autumn. Sweden’s economy recovered to pre-pandemic levels in the first quarter of this year. Photograph: Amir Nabizadeh/TT news agency/AFP via Getty Images

People at a shopping centre in Solna, near Stockholm, last autumn. Sweden’s economy recovered to pre-pandemic levels in the first quarter of this year. Photograph: Amir Nabizadeh/TT news agency/AFP via Getty Images

 

Sweden will on Tuesday become the last Nordic country to begin easing coronavirus restrictions, even though the Scandinavian nation continues to have one of the highest infection rates in Europe.

Rules will be relaxed for the number of people who can attend sports events, outdoor concerts, cinemas and markets, while bar opening hours will be extended.

But Sweden, the only EU country not to lock down during the first stage of the pandemic last year, will wait until at least July for a wider easing of restrictions. Its neighbours Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland have all opened up their societies several times in recent weeks.

“It’s not much easing,” said Karin Tegmark Wisell, deputy state epidemiologist. “It’s not until we ... have a stable lower number of new cases, lower pressure on healthcare, and a higher number of vaccinees that we can go into a new phase where we look into easing in a truer way.”

Prime minister Stefan Lofven last week said “the message is not that the pandemic is over ... even if things are getting better. Rather, it’s how we behave now and in the future that will determine whether we can further ease restrictions or not”.

Sweden has the second-highest number of Covid-19 cases per capita in the EU, having previously been the worst-affected country, although it is much better placed on hospitalisations and deaths. Its economy recovered to pre-pandemic levels in the first quarter, according to gross domestic product data released on Friday, a quicker pace than most of the EU.

Over the course of the pandemic, Sweden has fared worse than its Nordic neighbours on excess mortality, hospitalisations and cases, but better than much of Europe. It reacted slowly to the second wave last autumn as officials such as chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell believed that Sweden would not be hit so hard after the first wave.

Stung by criticism by among others the Swedish king, the government in Stockholm tightened restrictions around Christmas, meaning that Sweden’s strategy came much closer to other European countries and in some cases was stricter than Norway, Denmark and Finland.

But there are still worries about the pressures on the healthcare system. Social affairs minister Lena Hallengren said on Friday that she was in talks with Norway and Denmark about them providing extra staff to help out.

Quick action

Much of the focus internationally has been on Sweden’s lack of a formal lockdown. But Swedish experts increasingly say the issue was more a lack of quick action in each of the pandemic’s waves, and a focus on only suppressing the virus enough to allow the Swedish healthcare system to cope.

“What was missed in Sweden in my opinion was early strictness. It’s what you do early that decides what happens afterwards,” said Annika Linde, Sweden’s former chief epidemiologist. “When it seems as if new waves are beginning it’s then that you need new restrictions.”

Sweden is opening up cautiously as more people are being vaccinated. More than four in five over-60s have received one dose and nearly all over-80s are fully vaccinated.

Wisell said Sweden’s infection rate remained high, even though it was falling in most regions except the far north of the country, because of how it was hit compared with other European countries.

“We were late going into the second wave and late into the third wave, and now we’re seeing we’re late coming out of the third wave. So I don’t think it is very unexpected,” she added.

Another change from Monday will mean that a negative Covid-19 test will no longer be required to enter Sweden from another Nordic country. The bigger easing is due on July 1st, when advice to only socialise with a small number of people is set to be dropped and limits on private gatherings and events are raised significantly.

The prime minister stressed that while he was “prepared to stop the easing” if the situation deteriorated, Sweden could “glimpse the beginning of the end” of restrictions.

Linde said she feared that even Tuesday’s limited reopening sent out the wrong message. “Arguing and discussions makes people less prone to follow the advice that is given. All this fuss makes it even more difficult to make a coherent approach,” she said. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021