What you need to know about Sweden’s new social distancing guidelines

What you need to know about Sweden's new social distancing guidelines
People walk down a quieter than usual street in Stockholm's Old Town. Photo: AP Photo/David Keyton
Sweden on Wednesday issued new binding guidelines asking everyone in the country to reduce their social contacts and keep distance from others at all times.
“Everyone in Sweden has a responsibility to prevent the spread,” the Public Health Agency's general director Johan Carlson said in a statement announcing the new guidelines.

“The new general advice means that larger contexts should be avoided where several people meet, such as parties, weddings and other events. It is also important that people keep a distance from one another at, for example, sports venues, gyms, shopping malls, in public transport and other locations.”

What do I have to do as an individual?

The new guidelines state that every person in Sweden must “keep a distance” from others in indoor and outdoor locations such as shops, offices, museums, libraries, and waiting rooms. 

These recommendations also apply to public transport, and the agency advises that individuals avoid travelling in rush hour and avoid all non-essential travel.

They also recommend that people take measures such as “avoiding taking part in large social events such as parties, funerals, christenings, and weddings”. 

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What does 'keep distance' mean?

This isn't explicitly stated in the new guidelines, and the distance that it's possible to keep from other people will depend a bit on the situation you're in.

The World Health Organisation recommends keeping at least a one-metre distance from others, and two metres if possible. That's about the width of an average car, or a very tall person. Generally, you should try to be conscious of not getting closer than necessary to other people.

Who do the binding recommendations apply to?

The rules apply to everyone in Sweden, meaning that whenever you are outside your home, you should avoid meeting in large groups as much as is possible, and keep a distance from others. The Public Health Agency's director Johan Carlson said on Tuesday: “Everyone has an obligation to follow this. It's not optional.”

Earlier guidelines that people aged over 70 or belonging to a risk group for the coronavirus should self-isolate are still in place. This means that people in this category should be going a step further to completely limit social contacts, in other words avoiding meeting other people and doing activities like shopping, although it is still OK to go outside as long as you keep a good distance from others.

If you experience any cold- or flu-like symptoms, however mild and even if you would normally carry on as normal, you are also asked by the Public Health Agency to stay at home and avoid locations such as public transport, parties and events, gyms and shops.

The rules also require all organisations and companies in Sweden to take measures in order to comply with the rules, which might mean any of the following: regulating the number of people inside a venue at one time, cancelling in-person events and meetings, informing their employees and customers of the regulations, marking out distances on the ground or rearranging furniture to make it possible to keep distance, and providing facilities for hand-washing.

What happens to people who don't follow the recommendations?

The guidelines are not considered optional, however unlike in many other countries there will be no official punishment or sanction for individuals who do not follow them.

They are part of Sweden's law on the prevention of the spread of infectious diseases, which obligates everyone to help halt the spread of infection.

Perhaps more importantly, people who don't follow these guidelines are risking their own health and that of other people.


Previous rules have required cafes, bars and restaurants to offer table service only and limit contact between patrons and staff. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Can I still go shopping?

Yes. If you are completely symptom-free and do not belong to a high-risk group, you can still go to both grocery shops and other businesses. 

But individual shops and shopping malls are now required to take steps to reduce social contact, such as limiting the number of people inside at any one time, making hand sanitiser and soap and water available, and ensuring that queues to cash tills don't lead to crowding or close contact.

What does it mean for public transport?

Public transport operators are required to limit the number of travellers where possible and reduce congestion, for example by ensuring that a sufficient number of buses and trains are running.

Many public transport operators in Sweden have already introduced measures to limit social contact, including signage asking commuters to spread out inside vehicles.

Can I have friends or relatives round to my house?

This isn't explicitly addressed in the Public Health Agency recommendations, although it does state that “larger” events with a lot of people should be avoided.

Health Minister Lena Hallengren said clearly on Tuesday that even this kind of social gathering should be avoided where possible, telling a press conference: “You should keep a distance, you should stay home if you're sick, practice good hand hygiene and not organise parties and invite round friends, acquaintances and relatives in this situation.”

Earlier recommendations to avoid all non-essential social contact with people aged over 70 or belonging to another risk group still apply.

I'm still going in to work. What does this mean for me?

The new guidelines state: “Employers should ensure that staff and visitors stay away, that employees work from home, and avoid unnecessary travel if possible.”

That means that if it's possible for you to work from home, your employer should allow you to do that.

If you have to go to your workplace in order to carry out your work, your employer has a responsibility to take measures to reduce the risk of infection. That might include ensuring you can regularly and thoroughly wash your hands, and where possible to adjust your working hours so you can limit travel at busy times, and to arrange offices so that you can keep a safe distance from other employees and visitors.

How are these recommendations different to what was already in place?

It's the first time that the Public Health Agency's guidelines have explicitly required healthy, symptom-free people to keep their distance from others in public spaces. On March 24th, The Local asked the Public Health Agency if there was any guidance on the distance people should keep from others in public spaces, and we were told at the time “there are no such recommendations”.

But the advice from the Public Health Agency and the government has repeatedly stressed the importance of individual responsibility in limiting the spread of the coronavirus, including following good hygiene practices, working from home if possible, and avoiding all non-essential travel.

And Health Minister Lena Hallengren appealed to people in Sweden to practice social distancing on March 24th, saying: “Keep your distance, we normally say in traffic. But that also applies to social life now. In the first instance, use telephone, video chat, or other tech, to keep in touch with relatives and friends. That especially applies to contact with elderly people or other people who are particularly vulnerable.”

So the big change now is that the Public Health Agency has made it much more explicitly clear what individuals are expected to do to avoid spreading the virus, and that this now includes keeping a distance from others. 


Member comments

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  1. Okay, great. We are starting to get some answers, though still not clear whether I’m allowed to hang out one on one with friends that live within walking distance. Are we on lockdown yet?

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