Sweden limits public gatherings as pandemic second wave swells

People walk outside a restaurant in central Stockholm

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - The Swedish government on Monday moved to cut the size of public gatherings sharply as it sought to come to grips with a second wave of the pandemic that has seen record daily numbers of new cases and growing pressure on hospitals.

Swedes are not sticking to coronavirus recommendations as well as in the spring and public gatherings will now be limited to eight people, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said, down from a previous upper limit of 300.

"This is the new norm for the entire society," Lofven told a news conference. "Don't go to gyms, don't go to libraries, don't host dinners. Cancel."

The resurgence of the disease hit Sweden weeks later than much of continental Europe, but the number of new infections has picked up speed since the turn of the month, with rising admissions to intensive care units and general Covid-19 wards.

The daily death toll from the disease has also climbed after having slowed to single digits during an extended summer lull, when many Swedes gradually began to live their lives more normally.

Interior Minister Mikael Damberg said the new limit on gatherings - far lower the 50 allowed during the spring outbreak - would be in place for four weeks but could be extended to run over the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Sweden has gained international attention for its unorthodox response to the pandemic, shunning lockdowns and widespread use of face masks and instead relying on mainly voluntary measures even as the pandemic hit the country increasingly hard.

More than 6,000 people with COVID-19 have died in Sweden since the pandemic began, a death rate per capita several times higher than that of its Nordic neighbours, if somewhat lower than some larger European countries such as Spain.

"We don't believe in a total lockdown," Prime Minister Lofven said. "We believe that the measures we have taken ... are appropriate."

(Reporting by Johan Ahlander and Niklas Pollard; Editing by Simon Johnson)