Swedish PM Löfven: ‘We need to improve conditions within elderly care’

Swedish PM Löfven: 'We need to improve conditions within elderly care'
Prime Minister Stefan Löfven speaking to press. Photo: File photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT
The Swedish prime minister Stefan Löfven has addressed criticisms that his government may have handed over responsibility to agencies too readily, in an interview that also addressed the failures to prevent the spread of infection within care homes.

The daily press conferences giving updates on the situation in Sweden have been given by the Public Health Agency, and it's this agency that has issued the vast majority of the guidelines to the public and to businesses aimed at reducing the spread of infection. 

Government agencies in Sweden tend to lead the work in areas where they have expertise, and these agencies work independently from the government. It's generally frowned upon for ministers to direct the agencies on how to act, but during the crisis the question has been raised of who is responsible for the measures taken.

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Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has previously said that the question of accountability, or who is responsible if Sweden's strategy does not work, should wait until the crisis is over.

But in a telephone interview with the TT newswire, he stressed that while it is important for the government to listen to experts — including the Public Health Agency when it comes to reducing the spread of infection, and other authorities on questions related to the economy and jobs — the government was still ultimately in charge.

“The government has had 25 extra sessions during this crisis. The government always runs the country,” he explained.


Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Asked if the government had denied any of the Public Health Agency's requests, for example due to negative consequences for the economy, Löfven told TT he could not think of any such instances. He also said he couldn't think of a time where the government had wanted to go further than the agency advised.

“There have of course been discussions on how many people can meet at one time, but without the government deciding what the agencies advise. We take in the information and then make a decision,” the prime minister said.

Löfven responded to the portrayal of the Swedish strategy as very different from the measures taken in most other countries.

Swedish authorities and ministers have repeatedly stressed that Sweden has had the same goals as in other countries and taken broadly similar measures, but the prime minister highlighted the decision not to close schools as one notable difference. 

Löfven told TT that there is an “increased understanding” for how Sweden reached this decision, but also said it had been right to close higher education and schools for over-16s, where the risk of spreading infection is higher. These institutions have been asked to switch to distance or online learning instead.

One area where the prime minister said the strategy had not achieved its goals was in the elderly care sector, where infection has spread within care homes among those most vulnerable to serious illness as a result of the coronavirus.

By the end of April, 948 of the around 2,000 people who had died of the coronavirus in Sweden lived at care homes. A further 493 of the victims had home carers, called hemtjänst in Swedish.

“We need to improve the conditions within elderly care,” the prime minister told the TT newswire.

He did not outline specific measures he thought were needed or planned to take, saying: “We will come back to that.”

Neither the government not the Public Health Agency has yet been able to pinpoint reasons for why the infection spread within care homes to such a great extent, although the Public Health Agency has said it has begun an initial analysis into the question.

Surveys carried out within Stockholm and Sörmland, two of the worst affected areas, also showed there was no clear common factor between those homes that were affected by the coronavirus. Infection within care homes has been a problem in most countries with the coronavirus, including countries such as France and Spain as well as neighbouring Denmark and Norway.  

Several politicians and researchers have said some of the blame lies with the privatisation that has taken place within the care sector, leading to higher pressure and a lack of coordination that could be essential in a pandemic. Health Minister Lena Hallengren is one of those who has pointed to the high number of hourly or temp workers, who meet a lot of new elderly people each day, and who may not be able to afford to lose their salary by staying home with mild symptoms.


File photo: Gorm Kallestad/NTB Scanpix/TT

Löfven said: “I'll put it like this: Privatisation in itself doesn't have to be wrong, I think we will need to have private aspects within the public sector. But we need to think through the division of responsibility, if there are good conditions and incentives (for private companies) in the right way.”

“We see that it gets hard to have such an important business working as it should if too many people have to go on hourly employment. If there is a lack in training and instructions, it's clear that this isn't good,” he said.

The government put forward several crisis measures which were aimed at supporting businesses and workers struggling due to the coronavirus. These included replacing the karensdag, the unpaid first day of illness, with a standard payment, although this was still below standard sick pay for a worker on an average salary. And there were no measures for sick pay for hourly workers. 

When asked by TT why this wasn't included in the crisis measures, Löfven said: “We are working on a review of what needs to be done, but this is very complex.”

Overall, the prime minister said it was too early to say whether the Swedish measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus had worked or not.

“The final evaluation should happen long afterwards, when we see the results of what happened in different countries and on what basis decisions were taken. Then, it is possible to make legitimate comparisons; now it is too early to do so.”


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