What Sweden’s coronavirus crisis law means (and doesn’t mean)

What Sweden's coronavirus crisis law means (and doesn't mean)
The Swedish government building, left, and parliament, right. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT
The Swedish government has been granted powers to make faster decisions if needed in order to fight the coronavirus. Here's what you need to know about this unusual measure.

What are the new powers?

A new bill is set to give the Swedish government extra decision-making powers during the coronavirus crisis.

The bill was passed by parliament on April 16th, is set to come into effect from April 18th and last until June 30th.

Essentially, the bill means that the government can make certain decisions to curb the spread of the coronavirus without first asking parliament.

However, it is only to do so if it new measures are needed so urgently that there is no time for a debate in parliament, and parliament does have the right to revoke any measures after they have come into effect.

Why is this on the table?

The government wants to be able to take decisions on potentially life-saving measures as quickly as possible, in the fast-moving situation we're in.

“We are now experiencing a historically difficult situation and we need opportunities to make difficult decisions if necessary,” said Health Minister Lena Hallengren. “Even if parliament works fast, it can mean that we lose days. We are not prepared to take that risk.”

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What kind of measures could this include?

The bill is limited to measures that are introduced in order to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

“This proposal applies only to measures that are linked to the coronavirus and only for a limited time,” Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said.

That might include, for example, closures of any or all Swedish ports, schools, gyms, restaurants, shops or other businesses.

But it could not include a curfew, as this is considered too great a measure to be imposed without going through parliament.

The government has already taken some measures to limit infection, including a ban on public events for over 50 people and a ban on visits to nursing homes.


Stickers in an Ikea store asking customers to keep distance from each other. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

What role will the Public Health Agency play now?

The role of the Public Health Agency is unchanged by this law.

That's because this is a state agency, which is independent from the government, and does not have the power to pass laws. Nor can ministers influence its day-to-day work.

The Public Health Agency issues binding recommendations, which currently include recommendations to work from home if possible, keep distance from others in public, and stay at home if unwell, among other things. Everyone in Sweden is expected to follow these, but there are no official sanctions for those who flout the rules.

The government has the power to pass legislation, which in the case of infectious disease control it usually does based on discussion with the Public Health Agency. Overruling government agencies or disregarding their advice is extremely unusual in Sweden.

Has there been any criticism of the move?

Yes. At first, some of Sweden's larger opposition parties and Sweden's Council of Legislation criticised the bill for being too vague.

But on April 7th the party leaders met and defined the measures which could be covered by the bill, as well as ensuring that any measures imposed under the bill would still be subject to parliamentary review afterwards. There is now sufficient support in parliament for it to pass.

One of the amendments made to the bill means that although the government will be able to impose measures immediately, the proposals must still go to parliament for review. And if a parliamentary majority disapproves of a decision and appeals it in court, it could be cancelled within days. 


Parliament has been operating with only 55 MPs during the crisis. Photo: Ali Lorestani / TT

Does this mean we'll see a lockdown soon?

Not necessarily. Several international media have reported on the new powers describing them as a “U-turn” from its currently softer measures, but that's not really correct.

According to Health Minister Lena Hallengren, as of April 7th there were no concrete plans as to how the law would be used or which measures might be pushed through.

What it does mean is that if the government decides to impose a greater shutdown – either on the advice of the Public Health Agency or not – they will be able to implement measures like closing down travel or businesses more quickly than if parliamentary approval were still needed.

However, they will still not be able to limit people's ability to go outside, through measures like a curfew, without parliamentary approval.

The proposal states that: “Such an intervention as a ban on going outside – a type of isolation – or a quarantine of the whole society would likely mean limits to freedoms and rights that would require a law.”

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What should you be doing to help reduce the rate of infection?

In Sweden, the official advice requires everyone to:

  • Stay at home if you have any cold- or flu-like symptoms, even if they are mild and you would normally continue life as normal. Stay at home until you have been fully symptom-free for at least two days.
     
  • Practise good hygiene, by regularly and thoroughly washing your hands with soap and water, using hand sanitiser when that's not possible, and covering any coughs and sneezes with your elbow.
     
  • Keep distance from all other people when in public places. That includes shops, parks, museums, and on the street, for example. The World Health Organisation recommends keeping at least a 1.5-2 metre distance.
     
  • Avoid large gatherings, including parties, weddings, and other activities.
     
  • Work from home if you can. Employers have been asked to ensure this happens where possible.
     
  • Avoid all non-essential travel, both within and outside Sweden. That includes visits to family, planned holidays, and any other trips that can be avoided.
     
  • If you have to travel, avoid busy times such as rush hour if you can. This reduces the number of people on public transport and makes it easier for people to keep their distance.
     
  • If you are over 70 or belong to a high-risk group, you should stay at home and reduce all social contacts. Avoid going to the shops (get groceries delivered or try to find someone who can help you), but you can go outside if you keep distance from other people. Read more about the help available to those in risk groups here.
     
  • By following these precautions, we can all help to protect those who are most at risk and to reduce the rate of infection, which in turn reduces the burden on Sweden's healthcare sector.
     
  • Read more detail about the precautions we should all be taking in this paywall-free article. Advice in English is also available from Sweden's Public Health Agency and the World Health Organisation.

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