Coronavirus: How does the situation in Sweden and Denmark compare?

Coronavirus: How does the situation in Sweden and Denmark compare?
A reopened restaurant in Copenhagen on April 21st. Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix
Denmark's bars and restaurants are again open after the country's strictest lockdown since the pandemic began. In Sweden meanwhile, they never closed, but the lifting of other restrictions has been postponed. What's happening in the two countries, and are there any lessons we could learn?

What’s the situation in both countries?

Denmark has maintained a stable epidemic level since mid-February, with daily infection numbers generally ranging between 400-800 and a test positivity rate between 0.3 percent and 0.5 percent. 

The number of Covid-19 inpatients in Danish hospitals has also been stable for some time, hovering around 200 in total for the country since the beginning of March.

The national incidence for the last seven days is 87.1 per 100,000 residents, according to official data. In the Greater Copenhagen area, the figure rises to 125.2 per 100,000 residents.

These figures have – so far – withstood the gradual lifting of restrictions, which began last month and entered a new stage last week as bars, restaurants, cafes, museums, and libraries reopened. Corona passports are generally required to access these services.

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Denmark entered 2021 in its strictest lockdown since the pandemic began and with hospitalisation numbers peaking in the 900s in early January. The lockdown, which came into force on Christmas Day, was initiated as cases escalated through November and December and the more infectious B117 variant, first detected in the UK, began to be picked up in Denmark. Non-essential shops were closed, the public assembly limit reduced to five people and school children sent home among other social restrictions and recommendations.

In contrast to neighbouring countries, Denmark deployed genome sequencing and other methods for tracing B117 from an early stage, well before the variant became the dominant form of Covid-19 in the country. Its spread was regularly cited as justification for retaining tight restrictions even as infection numbers began to fall off in the first two months of 2021.

Mandatory entry quarantine was not put in place until later – unlike in neighbouring Norway, where it has long been a feature of travel restrictions – but a flight ban followed by a de facto entry ban on travellers from the UK was used in response to the emergence of B117. Restrictions on entry from the UK are now in line with other non-EU countries.

Denmark has fully withdrawn the AstraZeneca vaccine from its Covid-19 inoculation programme, the only country to do so. Latest data shows that 1.2 million people, just over 20 percent of the population, have received a first vaccine dose. Almost half of those — 573,500 or 9.8 percent — have received both doses.

Sweden is currently experiencing a third wave of Covid-19, with the 14-day infection rate close to 800 new cases per 100,000 residents – one of the highest levels at any point during the pandemic – and intensive care reaching maximum capacity in some regions.

The country initially focused primarily on ‘voluntary’ measures rather than laws to curb the virus, issuing recommendations to the public to work from home, limit social contacts, and stay at home if unwell. Laws were passed to limit the maximum number of attendees at public events, and to make distance learning more possible at universities and high schools, but the government has never ordered non-essential private businesses or restaurants to close, or set legally binding limits on the number of people who may meet privately.

But the Public Health Agency has warned of a fall in compliance with these measures and since winter the government has passed more legally binding measures, helped by a pandemic law introduced in January 2021. This means that restaurants and bars must close at 8.30pm, shops and gyms must limit the number of customers inside at one time, and there are limits on the group size allowed at restaurants. At the same time, many regions have issued their own slightly stricter recommendations, requiring face masks to be worn in all indoor environments and urging people not to have close contact with people they don’t live with if it can be avoided.

More than two million people (25.5 percent of the adult population) have received their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine in Sweden.

A sign in the town of Uppsala, Sweden, saying that “decreased infection spread is your responsibility”. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

Denmark introduced stricter measures from the beginning compared to Sweden. Do we know how effective Denmark’s lockdowns were?

The two lockdowns introduced by Denmark, in March and December 2020, were both followed within weeks by a decline in the number of hospitalisations (daily infection totals were not clear in the first wave due to limitations on testing). 

The second of the two lockdowns stayed in place for longer, with no change in season to bolster a lift and authorities concerned with preventing an explosion in cases caused by the B117 variant.

Based on data showing the number of people admitted to hospital and daily deaths with Covid-19, both lockdowns brought the epidemic under control. The measures used were similar to each other, and less stringent than those seen in other European countries – for example, no restrictions on leaving one’s home were ever introduced. But each of the Danish lockdowns involved far-reaching closures of schools, non-essential retail, hospitality and the culture and service industries, and limits on public gathering.

One of the stated goals of the Swedish strategy was to use clear and sustainable measures that the public could follow long-term. How successful was that?

Two in five rate “the behaviour of the people of Sweden in the fight against the pandemic” as fairly good or very good, according to a recent survey by pollsters Kantar Sifo. That’s up from 33 percent at the turn of the year, but down from a peak of 72 percent in September last year.

Swedish decision-makers have repeatedly said that many people follow the country’s guidelines, but have recently conceded that compliance has been falling in recent months.

Unlike many countries, Sweden has never given a numerical limit to the number of people that can meet privately – although recently the government has said eight should be used as a guideline for the maximum, while some hard-hit regions have told residents not to meet anyone from outside their households. The intention was to allow people to adapt the guidelines to their personal circumstances, for example allowing close contact with people who may otherwise be isolated.  

But this has led to variation in how people interpret the guidelines. Just hours after the Prime Minister said a maximum of eight should be “the new norm” for social situations, a Public Health Agency legal representative said her own “close circle” included ten people.

To add to this, several ministers and high-profile figures from authorities have been accused of hypocrisy, for example when the Prime Minister admitted to visiting shops in person before Christmas, against local recommendations, and the director of the Civil Contingencies Agency travelled to the Canary Islands twice, against national recommendations to avoid non-essential travel.

A vaccination hub in Stockholm, Sweden. Photo: Carl-Olof Zimmerman/TT

Sweden kept normal life functioning to the greatest extent possible, while Denmark took a more cautious approach. How have the Danish public responded to closures of businesses?

It’s fair to say that patience was fraying by the end of the second lockdown amongst sectors of the public as well as politically. Demonstrations (by a small minority) against the national coronavirus response have occurred regularly since January. 

Perhaps more significantly, the political unity seen at the beginning of the pandemic has given way to a jostling between parties to secure or expedite aspects of the reopening which they consider high priority. Examples of this include allowing schools and businesses to reopen. 

As such, elements of the government’s decision making and strategy for reopening have become fair game for public criticism and questioning, even though those decisions are primarily informed (the government would argue) by scientific data and modelling.

Article by The Local’s Michael Barrett (Denmark) and Catherine Edwards (Sweden)


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  1. I read an article which compared the infection and death rate in various states, in the USA. Bottom line, the states that did not order lockdowns, and carried on as normal, like Sweden did, had better out comes, than states that were ultra strict.
    There were no conclusions drawn. Just a simple comparison of statistics. I notice that many counties count any one who dies while carrying the infection, as having died from it. It strikes me that very few in the last year have died of natural causes.

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