The ban applies to events such as sporting events, concerts, protests, trade fairs, amusement parks, and other large-scale events, including those which had previously received police permission.
It comes into effect from Thursday, March 12th and no time limit has been specified, though the government said it would follow the ban day by day and not keep it in place any longer than needed.
It's a first for Sweden, where no such move has ever been taken before, and restricts constitutional rights to hold meetings, demonstrations, and religious gatherings. Organisers who violate the ban risk fines or imprisonment of up to six months.
The goal is to prevent or delay widespread infection of the new coronavirus, after the Public Health Agency upgraded the risk of spread in Sweden from “moderate” to “very high” following signs of community infection.
“We are convinced that the public has a great understanding [for the measure],” said Justice and Migration Minister Morgan Johansson, according to TT. As to whether Sweden would take further steps, for example closing public schools as in neighbouring Denmark, Johansson said that no such decision had been taken yet but the government would not “rule anything out”.
“We are seeing countries where there are thousands of people who die [of the coronavirus],” he said. “If you get a general spread of this infection, then this disease has a high enough mortality rate that it's very serious.”
According to the World Health Organisation, 80 percent of those who are infected with the virus only suffer mild symptoms such as a headache or sore throat, but even those with mild symptoms can pass the virus on to others. Around five percent end up in a critical condition, disproportionately older people and those with pre-existing health conditions. Overall, the mortality rate is estimated at around 3.4 percent, but rises to a higher rate among the more vulnerable groups.
Sweden reported its first death linked to the virus on Wednesday. The victim was an elderly patient with underlying health conditions who passed away in hospital, and authorities were unable to link their infection to overseas travel or contact with any known coronavirus case. It is still the case that the vast majority of confirmed cases in Sweden can be linked to travel, mostly in northern Italy.
Several other countries in Europe and elsewhere have banned large public gatherings in response to the coronavirus, or COVID-19 as it has been named by the World Health Organisation. Such a ban is meant to limit a situation where a lot of people travel from various parts of the country or from abroad to all gather in one place.
Swedish authorities have said their main goal at the moment is to reduce the risk of the virus reaching the most vulnerable groups in society, namely the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.
“It is an infection control measure that could have an effect in the situation we are currently in, and in order to be effective the measure should apply to the entire country,” Public Health Agency director-general Johan Carlson said in a statement.
The ban only applies to public events, which means that workplaces, schools, shopping malls, cruises, or private gatherings of over 500 people will not be affected.
“We tried to look at events that are a bit bigger, where you have attendees who come from different places in the country like the handball league or the first division in football. The more people who attend an event, the greater the risk that people travel there from other parts of the country,” explained Carlson.
“We know that not all people manage not to go out if they have symptoms. If you bring together a lot of people in a small space, you have increased risks. At the moment we think this is an appropriate measure, we hope that it will be as short-term as possible.”
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