While many European countries are seeing new cases surge to levels not seen since the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Sweden – whose light-touch approach has made it an international outlier – has one of the continent’s lowest infection rates.
According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the Scandinavian country’s 14-day cumulative total of new cases was 22.2 per 100,000 inhabitants on Tuesday, against 279 in Spain, 158.5 in France, 118 in the Czech Republic, 77 in Belgium and 59 in the UK, all of which imposed lockdowns this spring.
Twenty-two of the 31 European countries surveyed by the ECDC had higher infection rates. New cases, now reported in Sweden only from Tuesday to Friday, are running at roughly the rate seen in late-March, while data from the national health agency showed only 1.2% of its 120,000 tests last week came back positive.
Sweden also has fewer new daily infections than Norway and Denmark, its Nordic neighbours. Thirteen Covid-19 patients are in intensive care in Swedish hospitals, and its seven-day average of coronavirus-related deaths is zero.
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“We don’t have the resurgence of the disease that many countries have,” Anders Tegnell, the country’s chief epidemiologist and architect of its no-lockdown strategy, told broadcaster France-24 in an interview, adding that the country was broadly happy with its overall strategy.
“In the end, we will see how much difference it will make to have a strategy that’s more sustainable, that you can keep in place for a long time, instead of the strategy that means that you lock down, open up and lock down over and over again.”
Unlike many countries, Sweden closed schools for the over-16s but kept those for younger pupils open, insisting on full attendance. Schools and universities are now open again.
It also banned gatherings of more than 50 people and told people over 70 and in at-risk groups to self-isolate.
Otherwise, the population of 10 million was asked, rather than ordered, to respect physical distancing and work from home if possible, which it largely did. Shops, bars, restaurants and gyms stayed open and the wearing of masks has not so far been recommended.
Tegnell has insisted the aim was not to achieve rapid herd immunity but to slow the spread of coronavirus enough for health services to be able to cope. He has also, however, consistently said Sweden’s strategy may prove more sustainable long-term.
The approach came under fire at home and abroad earlier this year as the number of deaths soared. At 574, Sweden’s coronavirus toll per million inhabitants is more than five times higher than Denmark’s and 10 times that of Norway and Finland, but lower than some countries that imposed lockdowns, such as the UK, Spain and Italy.
Tegnell told France-24 the country’s high mortality rate was not related to its overall strategy but rather to a failure to prevent the catastrophic spread of the virus in the country’s care homes, where the majority of Sweden’s 5,846 deaths occurred. “Of course something went wrong there,” he said.
The government said on Tuesday it was lifting its ban on visits to care homes for the first time in months from October. The minister for social affairs, Lena Hallengren, said: “It is a risk when we lift the ban. I now want everyone to take responsibility.”
Johan Carlson, the director general of Sweden’s public health agency, also said last week the strategy had been a success because it meant messages to the public had been clear and consistent, placing the emphasis on personal responsibility.
“The purpose of our approach is for people themselves to understand the need to follow the recommendations and guidelines that exist,” he said. “There are no other tricks before medical measures, primarily vaccines, become available. The Swedish population has taken this to heart.”
Jonas Ludvigsson, a professor of epidemiology at the respected Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, said: “Sweden’s strategy has been consistent and sustainable. We probably now have a lower risk of spread here compared with other countries.”
France on Saturday recorded 10,561 new cases in a single day, the highest since the pandemic began. Spain has also registered an alarming increase, earlier this month becoming the first country in western Europe to report 500,000 infections.
The Czech Republic on Sunday reported its biggest single-day increase in new infections for a third consecutive day, while the UK has also recorded a surge in the number of daily cases.