Coronavirus: Will Sweden ever have a total lockdown?

Coronavirus: Will Sweden ever have a total lockdown?
People walking in Stockholm, where there are no restrictions on leaving the house, unlike most of the rest of Europe. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT
Sweden has followed a different strategy in fighting the coronavirus compared to many other countries – though the aim of protecting vulnerable groups and reducing social contacts is the same, the Nordic country has stood out for its focus on voluntary measures rather than enforcing a lockdown. Should we expect a change any time soon?

Some of the legal measures currently in place in Sweden include a nationwide ban on public events for over 50 people, a ban on visiting elderly care homes, and rules requiring cafes, bars and restaurants to offer table service only and limit crowding, for example by spacing out tables.

In addition, the Public Health Agency has put in place a set of recommendations for individuals which are supposed to be followed, although they aren't being legally enforced. These include working from home if able to do so, keeping a distance from other people in public spaces, and staying at home if you're sick.

It's a strategy that has been met with some confusion and criticism both by a section of the Swedish scientific community and international media, although it also has supporters.

Many things have changed in Sweden; mobile phone data has shown significant reductions in travel, including over the Easter holiday weekend, and many shops and businesses have felt the negative economic impact as people opt to stay at home much more than usual.

But at the same time, not everyone is adhering to the restrictions. Warm weather over recent weekends has brought people to Sweden's parks and outdoor cafe terraces. While many follow guidelines to keep a distance, Stockholm police have raised concerns over crowded bars and parks in the capital – the epicentre of Sweden's outbreaks.

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'Same results with voluntary measures'

“We are starting to get some worrying reports from different parts of the country that nightlife is becoming crowded again. We hope that municipalities and regions will keep an eye on restaurants so that we continue to follow the rules that we have,” Anders Tegnell, state epidemiologist at the Public Health Agency, said at Monday's press conference.

One journalist asked, given the violations of the recommendations, when we might expect to see stricter recommendations.

Tegnell's response was that the existing framework for restaurants and bars is clear, and stressed that both restaurants and individuals had a responsibility to follow the rules and recommendations in place. Restaurants which flout the new rules could face closure. 

Asked by a French journalist to explain why Sweden has not locked down the country, Tegnell answered: “Basically because we think we can achieve the same results with voluntary measures, and I think that to a great extent we have shown that we can do that.”

“We have, by voluntary measures, managed to get people to move a lot less than they usually do. We have also shown that a number of other viral diseases have stopped circulating in our community, so there is a number of indirect measures that tell us that the way we have made social distancing work with voluntary measures has been quite effective, maybe as effective as the way other countries have done it with legal restrictions.”

A survey from Kantar/Sifo carried out for the Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) showed that around 70 percent of people in Sweden say they have reduced their participation in social activities to stop the spread of the infection.


Despite the absence of a lockdown, people have changed their behaviour and public spaces across the country are often much emptier than usual. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Legal difficulties

If Sweden were to introduce a lockdown, there are a few things that would need to happen first.

The government has already been granted faster decision-making powers, thanks to a new law that allows it to pass measures aiming at reducing the spread of a virus without needing to seek parliamentary approval first. But these measures are limited. The new law could apply to new restrictions such as closures of any or all Swedish ports, schools, gyms, restaurants, shops or other businesses. 

A curfew however is considered too great a measure to be imposed without going through parliament, so that isn't covered by these new powers. In other words, if the government wanted to place a limit on when, how often, or for what reasons people in Sweden can leave their homes, it would need to get parliamentary approval and pass a new law, since this would curtail constitutional rights.

The original proposal to grant the government faster decision-making powers stated 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.”

Sweden's constitution doesn't allow for a state of emergency during peacetime. That's a measure which exists in many other countries, allowing those countries' governments to impose tougher restrictions during times of crises – something many of them have indeed done.

 

So what should we expect?

While other countries, including neighbours Norway and Denmark, are starting to ease restrictions, Sweden is unlikely to follow suit – because the restrictions were less severe to begin with.

Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has said several times that people should count on the current restrictions to remain in place for “months”.

“It is not possible to say how long, but it is better to mentally adjust to months, not weeks. It is about flattening the curve; then the healthcare system will be able to cope [with the number of cases] but it will take a longer time [for Sweden to get back to normal],” he said in mid-April.

If we do see further measures being introduced, these could include those which are provided for in the coronavirus crisis law – the closure of schools, restaurants, gyms, train stations, or ports, for example.

And other measures are already possible under other laws in Sweden. The Act on Communicable Disease Control allows for measures such as placing people or specific buildings in quarantine in order to prevent the spread of dangerous illnesses, while the Public Order Act gives the police and government the power to limit public assembly, so that the limit on numbers for public events could be further reduced, to give two examples.

But it is also very possible that Sweden will stick with the measures currently in place.

Asked on Monday if it was possible that the country would introduce further restrictions, Tegnell said: “With this disease I would say that anything is possible, but I think that the likelihood of us going that way gets smaller and smaller over time.”

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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