Rules or recommendations: Just how strict are Sweden's coronavirus guidelines?

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected]
Rules or recommendations: Just how strict are Sweden's coronavirus guidelines?
What are the legal consequences if you fail to follow rules around social distancing? Photo: AP Photo/Andres Kudacki/TT

Unlike many countries, Sweden has not used laws or decrees as a key tool in fighting the coronavirus pandemic, instead relying on individuals taking responsibility. But the so-called recommendations are not optional and have a basis in law.


Firstly, it is important to emphasise that all the guidelines in place in Sweden have been introduced to protect public health. So choosing not to follow them could put your health and the health of those around you at risk, regardless of any potential legal consequences.

Government-imposed laws

The Swedish strategy has relied mostly on 'voluntary' measures, but not entirely.

A few of the restrictions are temporary laws, which as of October 21st include a ban on public events of more than 50 people, and special restrictions for restaurants (including the obligation to ensure a one-metre distance between groups and measures to prevent crowding).

These could change in future. Until October 1st, there was a national ban on visits to elderly care homes, and the government has announced plans to ease the restrictions on public events.

People who break these rules could face legal sanctions, depending on which law they relate to. 

For example, people who organise gatherings of more than 50 people are violating the Public Order Act, and could face fines or even imprisonment of up to six months. Police have the power to shut down such gatherings.

In the case of restaurants, inspections are coordinated by the municipality. If a business is found to be violating the temporary law (currently in place until at least December 31st, 2020), the municipality can order them to close until they prove they have made the necessary adjustments, or impose other sanctions.

Hand sanitiser and signs warning to keep distance in a restaurant. File photo: Helena Landstedt/TT


National recommendations from the Public Health Agency

The bulk of Sweden's coronavirus measures have been in the form of allmänna råd, which literally translates as 'general recommendations'. At The Local, we have chosen to translate these primarily as 'recommendations' or 'binding recommendations', but sometimes as 'rules' because the expectation is that everyone should be following them and they have a basis in law.

Some of the national recommendations apply to businesses and outline measures that shops, workplaces, or sports facilities for example should be taking to reduce the spread of infection. Others apply to individuals.

The recommendations themselves, such as frequent hand-washing, working from home if possible, staying at home if showing symptoms, and keeping a distance from others in public, are not laws. One reason for this is that by using more loosely worded recommendations, there is greater flexibility so that people can decide how best to apply the rules to their own circumstances. But this assumes individuals will take responsibility. 

So for example, it is up to individuals and employers to decide to what extent working from home is possible, and it is up to everyone to keep distance from others as much as possible, rather than Sweden naming a distance to be kept in public or specific professions exempted from home-working as has happened elsewhere.

When asked by media for more specificity on how to apply the guidelines in certain situations, the Public Health Agency has tended to emphasise the importance of individuals taking their own responsibility. This can make it confusing for individuals, particularly as different regions and businesses have chosen to interpret the guidelines in different ways. For example, if your workplace requires you to go into the workplace even though you could work from home, you don't have a legal right to refuse, even though that goes against the allmänna råd.

A sign in Stockholm refers to the 'two-metre' rule based on international guidance, but the Public Health Agency has more often referred to keeping a distance of one metre or an arm's length. Photo: TT


Although there is room for variation in how to interpret the guidelines, Sweden's Communicable Disease Act, which is a law, requires everyone in Sweden to "take reasonable precautions to curb the spread of infectious diseases". The actions which are "reasonable" to take depend on the circumstances of the individual and Swedish society as a whole, and the allmänna råd issued by the Public Health Agency show us what the agency considers "reasonable".

It is possible to be prosecuted under the Communicable Disease Act if you are found to have infected others with the coronavirus either knowingly or through negligence; the same applies to other socially dangerous diseases such as HIV. You could face investigation if you do not get tested for the coronavirus even after being repeatedly called for a test, for example via contact tracing.

But in general, you are unlikely to face legal consequences for failing to comply with allmänna råd, for example if you go into work despite it being possible to work from home, organise a private party or fail to keep distance in public.


Local recommendations in response to outbreaks

As of October 19th, it is also possible for individual regions to have stricter recommendations imposed if this is judged necessary for handling local outbreaks.

Uppsala became the first region to introduce these extra local restrictions on October 20th, and they included urging people to avoid public transport, avoid physical contact with people outside their household, and to avoid arranging or organising parties or social gatherings. Stricter recommendations were also introduced for shops and businesses in the region.

In some ways, these are not significantly different from the national recommendations, which urge people to limit social contacts and avoid 'large' gatherings, as well as to choose other means of travel than public transport if possible and to keep a distance from others on public transport.

At the press conference announcing the measures, authorities stressed that it was extra important to follow the existing national recommendations in Uppsala, such as working from home if possible.

The restrictions in Uppsala are also allmänna råd, so they have the same legal basis as the national recommendations. In other words, these are not optional, but there are no sanctions for those who do not follow them.



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