Don’t judge Sweden’s light touch on Covid-19 yet, says minister

By Jon Henley

Sweden’s foreign minister has said it is way too early to judge her country’s light-touch approach to Covid-19, but warned the government would take tougher action if needed after five Stockholm pubs were shut for not observing physical distancing.

“There’s been a lot of misunderstanding,” Ann Linde said. “We have pretty much the same goals as every other government … And as we have always said, we are perfectly ready to go with more binding regulations if the population does not follow.”

Sweden has closed senior schools and banned gatherings of more than 50, but asked – rather than ordered – people to avoid non-essential travel, work from home and stay at home if they are elderly or ill. Relying on citizens to act responsibly, it has left shops and restaurants and gyms open, but expects those visiting them to obey distancing norms.

Sweden deaths

Many Swedes support and are complying with the policy, which contrasts with the strict mandatory lockdowns imposed in many EU countries and has been heavily criticised by some scientists. The country’s death toll per million, while far lower than Italy’s and Spain’s, is also many times higher than those of its Nordic neighbours.

Linde told the Guardian in an interview that Sweden’s aims were to “save lives, stop the virus from spreading, ensure the healthcare system can cope and mitigate the consequences for business and jobs”. It must also be sustainable for the long term, she said: “This is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Stockholm authorities shut down five pubs and restaurants that failed to observe the recommendations this weekend, only allowing customers time to finish their food before obliging them to leave.

Ann Linde
Ann Linde admitted the high number of deaths in care homes was an area where Sweden had failed. Photograph: Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images

“This was a strong signal,” Linde said. “These are not voluntary measures. You are meant to follow them. We believe the best way for us is a combination of some binding regulations and clear advice to the public. As far as possible, we want to build on a strong, longstanding relationship of trust between authorities and the public.”

There is plenty of evidence that most people are falling in line, she said, citing a 96% fall in reservations at the country’s two most popular domestic holiday destinations after the government repeated its advice to stay at home over the Easter break. The country’s rate of infection is also showing signs of levelling off and the Public Health Agency estimates up to 20% of its population has contracted the virus.

Linde said she “would have been surprised if there had not been criticism” of the strategy, spearheaded by the country’s chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, who has described it as being not about creating “herd immunity” but containing the spread of the virus while preserving the capacity of the health service to respond.

Some of the country’s leading medical professors and academics have been fiercely critical of the decision not to follow much of the rest of Europe into strict lockdown, publishing open letters and petitions calling for an urgent change of course and highlighting a per-million death tally which, at 2,194, is three times Denmark’s and Germany’s and more than six times Finland’s.

Linde said Sweden’s relatively high death toll was “certainly not part of the plan” but conceded that the exceptional number of deaths in care homes – which so far account for more than half of all the country’s deaths from the coronavirus – was “one area where we have failed”.

The government passed early binding legislation banning visits to care homes for elderly people, she said, “but still the virus got in and a lot of deaths have occurred. We don’t know why this is – perhaps because some homes did not observe regulations, perhaps because staff’s jobs were not secure so they felt they could not afford to take sick leave … We’re investigating.”

Linde said that while cooperation between the Nordic countries had generally been excellent despite “very different views of what was effective” in tackling Covid-19, there had been “long discussions” with Denmark and Finland over the issue of border closures before arrangements were found that were acceptable to both sides.

Finland in particular had to be persuaded to allow the healthcare sector workers on whom Sweden relies in some regions to continue commuting across the border every day. “I have, generally, had to answer a lot of questions from my counterparts around the world about our approach,” she said.

Despite avoiding total lockdown, Sweden’s heavily export-dependent economy has been as hard hit by the pandemic as most countries. The government has launched relief measures worth about 100bn kronor (£8bn) but still expects GDP to contract by up to 10% this year. Unemployment is already surging.

Linde insisted it was too early to judge the success or otherwise of her government’s decisions relative to those of others, or even to tell what the criteria for success might eventually be. “I won’t evaluate or judge the strategy in Sweden or anywhere else,” she said. “It will take rather a long time before anyone can do that.”

Different countries have different methods of counting Covid-19 deaths, she pointed out. And the longer-term consequences – for example, the impact on public health of lengthy enforced lockdowns, or of widespread job losses – would take years to assess. “We have simply tried to do what we believe to be right,” she said.