The country hailed by lockdown sceptics has suffered one of the worst second waves in Europe.
The tone was solemn, the message stark: “Don’t go to the gym. Don’t go to the library. Don’t have dinners. Don’t have parties. Cancel.”
The grim words came from Swedish prime minister Stefan Löfven in a televised address on 16 November, in which he announced a ban on public events of more than eight people. At first glance, it appeared that Sweden, which had eschewed strict lockdowns since the start of the pandemic, had reversed its stance after spiralling Covid-19 infection rates. Was this an admission that the Swedish strategy had failed?
During the first wave of coronavirus, Sweden left most decisions on social distancing in the hands of individuals. People were asked to work from home if possible and avoid public transport, and many complied, but in legal terms the only major restriction on people’s freedoms was a ban on events of more than 500 people, a number that was later reduced to 50. A temporary law that allowed the government to close transport hubs, restaurants or shopping centres expired in July without being used.
Anti-lockdown activists around the world looked to Sweden for inspiration, and Swedish flags were waved at protests in London, Berlin and the US. Sweden’s strategy was fronted not by politicians, but by the country’s Public Health Agency and its chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell. His stated aim was to impose measures that would be sustainable over time and would prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, rather than completely suppressing the disease. He also thought natural herd immunity would play a role in slowing the virus’s spread
The first wave in Sweden was brutal: by June over 5,000 people had died after being infected with Covid-19. A study by Imperial College showed that while overall excess deaths in Sweden, at 58 per 100,000 for men and 49 per 100,000 for women, were lower than in countries including the UK, Spain and Belgium, neighbouring Norway, Denmark and Finland had no detectable excess deaths in the first wave.
By the autumn, however, the picture appeared more positive. As the second wave gathered pace in the UK and other parts of Europe, infections in Sweden remained low. As recently as the first week of October, Tegnell said he thought Sweden’s approach, with voluntary measures designed to gain public acceptance, might help it avoid a full-blown second wave.
That hope would soon be dispelled. By the end of November infections were rapidly accelerating, with a 14-day rate of 698 cases per 100,000, compared to 316 in the UK or 346 in Denmark. On 9 December Stockholm’s health authority declared that 99 per cent of its intensive care beds were occupied and asked national authorities to help them find extra staff.
The capital has since requested assistance from the country’s military, while Finland and Norway have offered outside support. Sweden’s cumulative death rate per million people (744) is around seven times higher than those of its Nordic neighbours and its caseload is rising at the fastest rate of almost any European country.