A three-step plan: When and how Sweden hopes to lift its Covid-19 restrictions

A three-step plan: When and how Sweden hopes to lift its Covid-19 restrictions
It's not at all certain that big rock festivals like Sweden Rock will happen even at Level 1. Photo: Hanna Franzén/TT
Sweden's Public Health Agency has submitted its proposals to the government on how the country should start to lift restrictions and recommendations when the coronavirus situation improves, based on a three-step plan.

What restrictions are currently in place? 

Sweden is currently seeking to reduce the spread of infection with a combination of restrictions backed by law, which are implemented by the government, usually at the request of the Public Health Agency, and recommendations for individuals made by the Public Health Agency

Currently, under the Pandemic Law and Public Order Act, public gatherings are limited to just 8 people, as are private gatherings held in places which can be hired out, including the party rooms in apartment buildings. The Pandemic Law also sets limits on the number of visitors to shops, gyms, swimming pools and sports facilities, and a separate law regulates restaurants, cafes and bars.

As well as these laws, the Public Health Agency also issues far-reaching recommendations, gathered here, requesting that people should only “socialise with a small circle of people”, that they should work from home if possible, and wear face masks on public transport.

What’s the plan for easing restrictions?

The Public Health Agency set out the level of restrictions that it believes will need to be in place for each of three different levels of infection in a formal proposal to the government. Its proposal only covers legal restrictions and does not consider how the agency’s recommendations, on, for instance, face masks on public transport or home working, will be altered at each level. 

According to Sara Byfors, a unit chief at the Public Health Agency, the vaccination programme will be the driving factor in moving between the levels, though she did not give a concrete timeline.

“The vaccinations are going to move us from level three to level one,” Byfors told Dagens Nyheter newspaper in an interview on how restrictions will slowly be lifted. 

At all stages, there is also the possibility for stricter restrictions in specific regions based on the local spread of infection and impact on the healthcare sector.

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What is Level 3? 

Sweden is currently at Level 3, the most severe stage.

A Level 3 situation means the healthcare system is under severe pressure, with several regions declaring themselves to be in a catastrophic situation (katastrofläge), in need of reinforcements (förstärkningsläge), or a crisis situation (stabsläge). Non-urgent operations and other healthcare need to be put on hold to make way for Covid-19. At Level 3, a majority of regions have a high number of daily cases which is either on a plateau or rising. 

The agency’s proposal does not provide any numbers that define what number of cases would count as “high”, or exactly how many regions would need to declare themselves under pressure.  

At Level 3, the Public Health Agency recommends that: 

  • All bars and restaurants should be closed from 8.30pm for everything but take-away
  • At eateries in a shopping centre, only one guest should be allowed at a time 
  • Further restrictions at bars, restaurants and cafes may be brought in regionally and shutdowns may also be used if judged necessary
  • A maximum of 8 people for standing public events indoors, 50 for seated events indoors, 100 for outdoor events, 150 for running events 
  • Current limits on visitor numbers at shops, sports events, swimming pools, department stores, and shopping centres remain in place, and may be further tightened. Opening hours may also be limited if judged necessary, and regional shutdowns of certain businesses may be allowed.
  • Only half of the seats can be filled on bus or train journeys of over 150km
  • A maximum of eight people at private events as defined under the pandemic law (I.E. in hired or shared premises). 
  • Temporary bans on gathering can be imposed on busy public places 
Restaurants like Gondolen in Stockholm will be able to open later in Level 2. Photo: Adam Wrafter/SvD/TT

What is Level 2?

Under the Public Health Agency proposals, Sweden would reach Level 2 when the healthcare systems of most regions have a good chance of caring both for the number of Covid-19 patients and of all others who require care. Infection rates would need to be either at a relatively low plateau or falling in most regions. 

Again, the agency does not say exactly how this should be defined, but says it would be based on reports given from regions to the National Board of Health and Welfare.

At Level 2, the Public Health Agency recommends that: 

  • Opening times for bars and restaurants can be extended beyond 8.30pm and the maximum number of customers allowed per group may be increased
  • A maximum of 50 people applies for standing public events indoors, 300 for seated events indoors, 600 for outdoor events, 900 for running events 
  • The demand that visitors to shops, gyms, museums and galleries are limited to one per 10 square metres can be relaxed or completely removed
  • People can again shop in groups 
  • More than half the seats on long train and bus journeys can be used but some limits may still apply (no details are suggested)
  • More than 8 people will be allowed at private gatherings (as defined under the Pandemic Law)
  • Unlikely that temporary bans on gathering can be imposed on busy public places, but this may happen at a regional level

What is Level 1? 

For the Covid-19 situation to be classed as Level 1, the agency says there should be few patients in any region being treated for Covid-19, and the healthcare systems in all regions have no constraints on treating patients. At this stage, the infection rate of Covid-19 should be low and there are only small outbreaks. 

When does the Public Health Agency believe that enough people will be vaccinated to lift restrictions? 

Sweden’s vaccination coordinator Richard Bergström said on Monday that the goal of vaccinating all 8.2 million adults in the first six months of 2021 now looked impossible, predicting instead that about 5 million would probably be fully vaccinated, with all adults having received their first dose. 

But her interview with DN, Byfors said that even if all adults were not vaccinated by midsummer, enough would be to allow restrictions to be lifted. 

“We are fairly certain that we are going to reach a better situation in the coming six months with the vaccinations,” she said. 

“There is still not full knowledge of how the vaccines protect against the spread of infection and nor do we know when different groups will be fully vaccinated.” 

Even when the vaccinations have been completed, she added, that would not mean the end of Covid-19. 

“We don’t believe that Covid-19 is a disease which we’re ever going to completely get rid of.” 

How does this compare to other countries’ re-opening plans? 

Most other countries in Europe have had stricter restrictions in place in Sweden, including specific limits of the number of people who may meet privately and closure of many non-essential businesses,

Denmark’s prime minister Mette Frederiksen said last Monday that almost every restriction in Denmark could be lifted as soon as everyone over the age of 50 has been vaccinated. 

The UK has set out a timetable, with non-essential retail, zoos, and a swathe of other parts of society opening on April 12th, a further set of reopening before May 17th, and all legal limits on social contact removed by June 21st. But these dates will only be kept to if the vaccination programme has a positive effect in reducing deaths and hospitalisations, and if the risk assessment does not change.

Germany’s planned re-opening is tied mainly to the incidence rate (number of new cases reported per capita), with different restrictions relaxed the lower this number falls.

France’s government at the start of this month said it hoped to start lifting restrictions by mid-April, with the government hoping to use QR codes, a health pass and other technology to lift restrictions without an explosion in cases. But with the country currently facing a return to lockdown, that now looks highly unlikely. 

What happens now? 

The Public Health Agency has submitted these plans in a report to the government, which is responsible for any law changes but regarding Covid-19 has generally followed Public Health Agency recommendations.

The Local has contacted the government to find out how it intends to respond. 

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Member comments

  1. I am disgusted by what I see in the streets around Stockholm. Big crowds of teenagers running around together,
    crowding supermarkets and shops and bashing into people with no regards for social distancing.

    I have also reported to the council some businesses that I see that allow big groups to be sat together- but have not even heard back.

    No wonder numbers in Sweden are woeful and the main reason I am so disappointed with this country.

  2. I do think Sweden should consider now letting in UK citizens who have had both covid vaccinations . Covid is now well under control in UK and most restrictions are being lifted April 14.

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