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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Sweden’s Covid travel ban is getting more and more absurd

It's time for Sweden to take back control of its borders, and let vaccinated people in, writes The Local's publisher James Savage.

OPINION: Sweden's Covid travel ban is getting more and more absurd
Around 45,000 people will be able to cram into a Stockholm arena to watch Elton John next month – but will the main act even be allowed to cross the border? Photo: AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

For those of us with tickets to the twice-delayed Stockholm leg of Elton John’s farewell tour on October 1st, this week brought long-awaited news: restrictions on large gatherings, along with most other binding pandemic rules, will be removed in Sweden from September 29th. 

So the concert is on: 45,000 mask-free Elton fans are authorised to gather in the Tele2 arena two nights running, jostling in line, no social distancing, no masks (this is Sweden, after all), and no vaccine passports. We can hang out in the bars before and afterwards, and cram on to the metro on the way there and back.

But one person might theoretically not be allowed to join them: Elton John himself.

We know he has been vaccinated – he has even appeared in British government campaign videos urging people to get jabbed. But he is British, lives in the UK, and Sweden has a general ban on travel from non-EU countries, the UK included.

Of course, the list of exceptions to the ban is extensive: Swedish citizens can always enter the country, unconditionally. There are 100,000 of them living in the UK alone, and as anyone who has flown the London-Stockholm route can testify, they always account for a huge proportion of the people on the plane. Anyone who is a legal resident of Sweden can also enter the country. 

There are a few more exceptions: “highly-qualified workers” can be exempted from the ban if “the work is vital from an economic perspective and can’t be delayed or carried out at a distance”. An individual border guard will have to decide whether Elton’s 38 platinum albums qualify him, or whether the more than 80,000 tickets sold for his concerts make this economically vital for Sweden. Alternatively, the government can grant him a personal exemption.

Alternatively, Elton could just come via Denmark, which is admitting fully-vaccinated Brits, among others. Sweden allows free entry from other Nordic countries, so Denmark is a wide-open back door to Sweden.

Meanwhile, millions of people who live in Sweden have family abroad, and for them there is no blanket exemption. Being subject to Denmark’s travel regulations adds a level of complexity that makes it hard for people to plan their travel. And while Zoom has helped ease the pain of enforced separation, not being able to hug, share a dinner or a drink, go for a walk, watch TV or play games together is taking its toll. 

Norway, which otherwise has had draconian border restrictions, has at least finally recognised the importance of families by making an exception from the travel ban for certain close family and romantic partners (though not siblings), even if testing and hotel quarantine will be obligatory on arrival. But it’s important to remember that for many people, friends or siblings who live in different countries are just as essential to well-being as parents or adult children are for others.

Other EU countries have gone one step further, and are now allowing people from certain countries who are immunised with EU-approved vaccines to enter their countries without further testing or quarantine. Most recently, France has added the US to the list of countries from which it will accept vaccinated travellers. Germany, Spain and Italy are also accepting vaccine certification from certain non-EU countries. Swedish interior minister Mikael Damberg has hinted at doing something similar, but no date and no details have been announced, and nothing is confirmed. Training border guards to recognise foreign vaccine certificates is a complicating factor, but if other countries can do it, Sweden can too.

Vaccines are not a panacea. We know that people can still get ill after being vaccinated and can still spread the disease. However, the risk of both is significantly reduced. And like most other countries, with vaccine coverage soon at 80 percent, Sweden has opted to accept a level of risk on the home front as the price of our freedom to enjoy culture, to work and socialise. 

And if they don’t open up to vaccinated travellers, what is Sweden’s long-term plan? To keep outsourcing border control to Denmark? To keep making random personal exemptions for VIPs? The current situation is starting to look absurd – and all the while those of us with family and friends elsewhere are suffering. It’s time for Sweden to take back control of its borders, and let vaccinated people in. 

Member comments

  1. Completely agree. I’m all for requiring vaccination on entry, but the blanket ban is quite frustrating. I wonder if the media could apply some more pressure on this point?

  2. Seriously high time. My parent’s visa to visit me on the clause of participation of birth was rejected , despite it being a legit clause on the website.
    They rejected because they couldn’t justify that their support was needed because I had a partner here. So new mothers don’t need their parents for emotional support? I don’t understand lifting restrictions, letting their own people travel other countries on vacation and back to Sweden is ok?
    But my parents, Both of them fully vaccinated, traveling to meet their daughter who is pregnant after a long struggle and a miscarriage , about to give birth isn’t a good enough reason. A condition mentioned on the website as an example of imperative family reasons is not ok?
    So what does “participation at birth “ mean? And if there are conditions applied to it, why not clearly mention that. Then people won’t spend money on applications that they know will be rejected

    1. Sorry, the rejected reason was that they are a “Threat to the Member states”.
      And towards the end the summary was that i had a partner to support me. And that my parents coming here as an extra support was not a justifying enough reason for them to enter.
      Apparently parent’s moral support for new mothers is a lost cause. :/

    1. Yeah, but i still need a visa..Denmark won’t give my parents visa for childbirth in Sweden 😀
      And i don’t think i can get a visa for them just to visit say a relative in Denmark.
      So we are sort of cornered.

  3. As an example…Israel this is one of the most vaccinated countries on earth. Israeli citizens are on their second or third booster shot and Israel is now the worst covid ravaged country in the region. So bad in fact that Sweden wisely put a travel ban on Israelis entering Sweden VAX’d or not…With every shot, the statistics are seemingly get worse, not better! Now its common knowledge that the vaccine does not stop you catching nor spreading, so what’s with everyone’s love of this vaccine passport? Stockholm syndrome or something? I do not get it!

    1. Actually a very recent study from Oxford Uni shows that despite the same viral load, the vaccine does reduce the chance of spreading the virus. So long live the vaccines and the passports, as far as I am concerned.

  4. Does anyone know if Indian traveller’s with a valid Schengen can come through Germany? How’s Germany with letting passengers transit to Sweden? (tia)

  5. How this 80% vaccine coverage counted? I think it is >16 years old. Otherwise numbers in Sweden do not seem so good, at least with the rest of Europe. https://ourworldindata.org/covid-vaccinations shows that the share of population with at least one dose in Sweden, is 70%, while in Italy is 75%, Denmark 77%, Spain 81% and Portugal 85%. Sticking to the double doses we have Sweden, 65%, Italy 68%, Denmark 75%, Spain 78% and Portugal 85%.
    It is simply ridiculous to lock the door to people who have a vaccine certificate, and squeeze 45000 in a concert ball, without any check at least. I guess this is part of Tegnell’s plan to flatten the curve.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Sweden’s second city is the site of Scandinavia’s largest urban development project. But there is rising concern that the costs outweigh the benefits, says David Crouch

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Last week, residents in the area of Fågelsången (birdsong), a quiet street at the very heart of Sweden’s second city, woke up to read the following news: “Explosions at Fågelsången: On August 8, week 32, we start blasting around Fågelsången and are expected to be done by week 40. When blasting, for safety reasons, no one is allowed to go out, open their windows or be within the blasting area. We will work weekdays 7am to 5pm.” 

Blasting deep holes in the granite – along with sprawling roadworks – has been the reality for central Gothenburgers for the past four years, as a vast rail tunnel is being dug to link the current terminus with other parts of the city and enable smoother connections with other routes. The aim is to triple rail passenger numbers and eliminate traffic jams on the main road through the city, at a cost of 20 billion crowns (€1.9 billion).

This railway, known as Västlänken (the West Link), is not the only big construction project in the city centre. It is just the largest element in a gigantic scheme to revive the docks area along the river, which was destroyed by a global shipping crisis in the 1970s. The great rusting cranes opposite the opera house and the disused Eriksberg gantry are an important aspect of Gothenburg’s skyline and self-image. The areas on the north bank were also home to many recent immigrants and a byword for poverty. The city’s mayor famously, and shamefully, referred to it as “the Gaza strip”.

So in 2012 the city launched an ambitious plan. Christened Älvstaden, the RiverCity, municipal investment aimed to build an attractive, modern waterfront while creating tens of thousands of homes and jobs. It is by far the Nordic region’s biggest urban regeneration project. A YouTube video commissioned by the city authorities a few years later neatly sums up both the breathtaking scope of this vision and the exciting / brutal (choose your own adjective here) nature of the transformation it would bring: 

The RiverCity revolved around two flagship projects: a new bridge over the river, the Hisingsbron (Hisingen Bridge), combined with major new office developments right in the centre; and Karlatornet, Sweden’s tallest skyscraper, which would literally tower over Gothenburg like a beacon of modernity in a city that traditionally has had strict rules against high-rise buildings. 

Add to all this a proposed high-speed rail link with Stockholm, and you have a recipe for quite spectacular urban upheaval involving billions of tons of steel and concrete. Visit Gothenburg today and much of the city seems to have been turned into a building site. There is a forest of cranes, while smart new office blocks puncture the skyline – a genuine metamorphosis is under way.

But many Gothenburgers are either uneasy or downright unhappy. The RiverCity is a vanity project to gentrify the docklands, they say. Karlatornet’s 73 stories of luxury apartments will be a scar on the landscape and a symbol of Gothenburg’s new love affair with finance and real estate, a slap in the face for the city’s proud industrial values. Västlänken is a vit elefant, a costly project that will deliver questionable benefits, many believe.  

Opposition to Västlänken was such that a new political party, the Democrats, took 17 percent of the vote in 2018 with its headline demand to stop the project immediately. This caused a revolution in local politics, overturning decades of Social Democrat rule. 

And now the gloss on these big-ticket construction projects is starting to fade. Karlatornet was the first to run into trouble. For most of 2020 building work was at a standstill, raising the threat that this flagship of regeneration would be nothing more than an unfinished stump, after American financiers pulled out of the project. The new Hisingen Bridge is open to traffic, but its construction was fraught with setbacks and the final cost to the taxpayer is still unknown. “There has been an awareness from the start that this was a high-risk project,” one of the project’s bosses said ominously this spring.

RiverCity is more than two billion kronor over budget, and facing accusations of mismanagement that evoke Gothenburg’s old nickname of Muteborg, or Bribetown, after a proliferation of municipal companies in the 1970s led to conflicts of interest, with politicians sitting on company boards. Opponents of the scheme argue that in any case it is unlikely to solve any of the city’s fundamental problems, such as the ethnic segregation that has created immigrant ghettos in outlying suburbs.  

In May, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published leaked minutes from Västlänken management meetings in which one of the main contractors on the project said it would be delivered billions over budget and four years later than its official 2026 deadline – in other words, four more years of earth-shattering explosions, roadblocks and associated upheaval. With local elections only months away, the Democrats have taken out advertisements on billboards and in local media demanding that top politicians tell the truth about what is going on. For opponents of the scheme, this is exactly what they have warned of all along

Next June, Gothenburg will officially celebrate its 400th anniversary, postponed from 2021 because of the pandemic. Visitors will experience a city on the move, with pristine new motorways and sparkling office blocks. So for Gothenburg’s urban planners, there is light at the end of the development tunnel. In the case of Västlänken, however, they will be hoping that the light is indeed that of an oncoming train. 

David Crouch has lived in Gothenburg for nine years. He is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It, a freelance journalist and lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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