Why is Sweden’s Covid-19 response still so much slower than Denmark’s?

Sweden's health authorities are often months behind their counterparts in Denmark and Norway when it comes to taking specific measures against the Covid-19 pandemic. What are the reasons for the different approaches?

Why is Sweden's Covid-19 response still so much slower than Denmark's?
Denmark's Covid-19 vaccine pass was up and running in April. Sweden's is still in preparation. Photo: Tom Little/AFP

Sweden’s government on Thursday said it would still push ahead with developing a system for vaccine passes — even though after the lifting of the last Covid-19 restrictions next week, there will probably never be a use for them.

“The proposed vaccination pass, which is currently out for consultation, is not going to be needed for any events,” Sweden’s culture minister Amanda Lind, confirmed at a press conference on Thursday, although health minister Lena Hallengren stressed that there was still a chance it could be used in future if there is a resurgence in infections. 

Over in Denmark, the covidpas is already ancient history. 

It was set up and in use as early as April, helping Danes drink, eat out and visit attractions safely over the spring and summer, before going into retirement at the start of this month as the last restrictions were lifted. 

This is not the only way Sweden has appeared to be months behind its neighbour.

Denmark began vaccinating 12- to 15-year-olds at the start of July, meaning many were fully vaccinated by the time school started in August. Sweden only decided to vaccinate 12- to 15-year-olds in the past few weeks, and the Public Health Agency initially advising regions to only start giving the jabs in November, though it later brought this recommendation forward to October. 

In late July, Danish authorities spotted that too many people in their late teens and 20s were not getting around to getting vaccinated even though they weren’t opposed to doing so principle. The Danish Health Authority then launched a concerted campaign alongside regional health authorities to reach them wherever they gather, opening pop-up, drop-in vaccination centres at schools, universities, and even shopping malls. 

Sweden’s regions have only just started launching such schemes over the past few weeks — a full month behind Denmark. 

It can’t simply be explained by the fact Danish authorities have been more prepared to take drastic measures than their Swedish counterparts. Denmark is also ahead when it comes to scaling back restrictions. 

On September 10th, Denmark stopped classifying Covid-19 as a “critical threat to society”, and Norway quickly followed suit, but Sweden has not yet made a decision on altering the classification of the illness. 

Jonatan Strang, an associate Professor at Helsinki University specialising in comparing public administration in Nordic countries, said that Sweden and Finland both had a tradition of only bringing in new measures after thorough processes, making them slower in a crisis. 

“It’s part of the kind of concept of democracy in Sweden, that in order to implement a decision, it needs to be thoroughly investigated by experts, and it also needs to be thoroughly legitimised, it needs a broad support,” he explained.

“So that’s why they always send this proposals out to different kinds of experts and to different kinds of authorities, he said. “In Denmark,” he added, “the culture is to take a decision and do the investigations afterwards.”

In Sweden, and to a lesser extent in Finland, he added, ministers were not supposed to interfere in the operations of government agencies, with minsterstyre or “ministerial rulefrowned upon or even expressly prohibited, while in Denmark and Norway ministers have ultimate responsibility. 

“In Denmark, ministers are more directly responsible for everything that that happens within the authorities under them,” Strang said. “They get fired if it doesn’t work, so this means that the political response time is usually much swifter.” 


Lars Jonung, an emeritus professor of economics at Lund University, argues that the Swedish system has brought benefits, keeping the Swedish response more measured and rational than in most other countries, and avoiding mistakes. 

He pointed to Denmark’s decision to kill almost all of the minks in the country’s mink farms after worrying virus variants were detected, although this is now thought to have been unnecessary.

In fact, when The Local asked Swedish Health Minister Lena Hallengren in December why the country was slower than Denmark, she pointed to the killing of the mink as an example that speedy responses were not always the best.

“Denmark has a much more centralised system that allows the prime minister to send all the minks to execution, which was just an overreaction,” Jonung said. “In Sweden, the kind of pandemic populism you see in other countries has not had the constitutional prerequisites to develop.” 

However, as well as Sweden’s constitutional structure, the slow decision-making has also arguably been a question of leadership. 

In its assessment of the Covid-response in the first wave, Denmark’s own expert commission said that it did not believe that Sweden’s constitutional structure was enough to explain why its response was so much slower and weaker than Denmark’s. 

“It is the judgement of the expert group that these differences [in response] did not arise because of the different institutional structures around Swedish health preparedness and the Swedish Covid-19 response…or that the decision-making structures are more decentralised.” 

“There was a political decision in Sweden to stick to a prior strategy that had been formulated years in advance, a political choice, which explicitly supported the line that the Public Health Authority had decided to follow.” 

Nicholas Aylott, associate professor of politics at Södertörn University, said that Prime Minister Stefan Löfven had shown himself to be slow to take decisions throughout his two terms, both during the mass influx of refugees in 2015, when Sweden tightened refugee rules long after Denmark and Norway did, and during the pandemic. 

“The nadir of this period has been pandemic handling when you had government minister who basically became spokespeople for a public authority, and didn’t even pretend to take any important decisions,” he said. 

“I have a hard time imagining that any other prime minister in Swedish modern history, could have been so extraordinarily passive in these huge crises.” 

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Tourism to Sweden has been limited for the past two years for obvious reasons, but visitors are starting to return. And those living in countries where Covid-19 is still a thing might be in for a bit of a surprise.

Easter holidays: What to expect if you're coming to Sweden in 2022

Sweden has throughout the pandemic had a relatively light-touch approach to Covid-19 restrictions.

But from the start of this month, the disease is no longer classified as a threat to public health or a critical threat to society, the two temporary laws the government brought in to give it more powers in the pandemic have expired, and the last remaining travel restrictions have been removed. 

Entry restrictions due to Covid-19

Sweden this month did away with its non-EU travel ban, so from April 1st, no traveller needs to show proof of vaccination, a negative test result, or any other Covid-related documentation, no matter what country they live in, are a citizen of, or are travelling from.

There is also no recommendation to get a Covid-19 test on arrival. There are still testing centres in the departure area for travellers flying outside of Sweden, but the testing stations on arrival at Stockholm Arlanda and Gothenburg Landvetter have closed down.

Welcome to Sweden! 

READ ALSO: Who can travel to Sweden now Covid-19 travel rules are lifted? 

Face masks 

From April 1st, it is no longer recommended to wear a face mask when in airports in Sweden, so if you prefer to wear one, you may find yourself almost alone. 

Some airlines, such as British Airways and EasyJet only require passengers to wear masks if the end destination requires them, so you may notice the difference as soon as you get onto your flight. Norwegian lifted its mask requirement for Scandinavia in February. Ryanair, however, is still asking passengers to wear masks on all flights.  

The Public Health Agency lifted its recommendation to wear face masks on public transport when crowded at the start of February, but even when masks were recommended, only about one in ten passengers wore them. 

Again, if you prefer to wear a mask on public transport, you will find yourself alone. 

What restrictions are there in public places? 

None. At the start of February, Sweden removed the recommendation for sports and cultural clubs from arranging big events and competitions indoors, which was the last such recommendation in place.

There are no restrictions whatsoever for festivals, concerts, nightclubs, theatre performances, and all other indoor and outdoor events with a large number of participants. 

Those who are unvaccinated, whether by choice or for medical reasons are advised to avoid crowded places and large indoor events. 

What if I get Covid-19 while in Sweden? 

Even if you do get Covid-19 symptoms when travelling in Sweden, you are no longer expected to go and take a test. The only people recommended to get tested are those that work in or are being treated by the health system, and those who care for the elderly, or live in a care home.

If you get Covid-19 symptoms while travelling within Sweden, by all means take an antigen test or quick test. The Public Health Agency recommends that you should avoid contact with others even if the rapid test is negative. 

This might be a problem when you have to get a flight back home, particularly if you live in a country which required a negative test before boarding your flight.