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KEY POINTS: The new verdict on Sweden's coronavirus response

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KEY POINTS: The new verdict on Sweden's coronavirus response
STOCKHOLOM 20211029 Coronakommissionens ledamöter fr v Camilla Lif, Mats Thorslund, Shirin Ahlbäck Öberg, Mats Melin (ordförande), Göran Stiernstedt, Vesna Jovic och Ann Enander då Coronakommisionens delbetänkande presenteras i riksdagen på fredagen. Foto: Christine Olsson / TT / kod 10430

The Coronavirus Commission, appointed to examine Sweden’s coronavirus strategy, has presented its second interim report on Sweden's response to the pandemic.


What's the Coronavirus Commission?

In June last year, Sweden appointed a panel to investigate the response to the coronavirus and evaluate the actions by the government and other authorities. It is headed by Mats Melin, an attorney who formerly served on Sweden's top court for administrative cases.

Their first report, which looked specifically at the handling of the pandemic in the elderly care sector, was presented in December last year.


What did the first interim report tell us?

In short, it found that Sweden had failed to protect its elderly.

The 300-page report was summed up like this in the English version: “Apart from the general spread of the virus in society, the factor that has had the greatest impact on the number of cases of illness and deaths from Covid-19 in Swedish residential care is structural shortcomings that have been well-known for a long time. These shortcomings have led to residential care being unprepared and ill-equipped to handle a pandemic. Staff employed in the elderly care sector were largely left by themselves to tackle the crisis.”

At the time, more than 7,000 people had died of Covid-19 (listed as an underlying or contributing cause of death) in Sweden. Of these, almost 90 percent were aged 70 years or older, and half of them were living in a long-term residential care facility. Just under 30 percent were receiving home help services.

Protecting the elderly population – an age group which is particularly vulnerable to serious illness from Covid-19 – was a key tenet of Sweden's pandemic response, but the report also noted that Sweden did not have an especially high share of deaths in care homes as a proportion of total Covid-19 fatalities compared to other countries.

The government and Public Health Agency both admitted the attempts to protect the eldery failed, while Sweden's healthcare watchdog condemned “serious flaws” in elderly care during pandemic. The commission's report looked into exactly what led to these failures, and who was responsible. You can read more about the first report in The Local's article from December 2020.


Second report: What went wrong, and who is to blame?

The second report, published on October 29th, 2021, presents the Coronavirus Commission’s criticisms of the Swedish response to the pandemic on a number of different points.

The report concludes that the response to the pandemic was slow, describing initial measures to control the virus as “insufficient to stop or even substantially limit spread of virus in the country”.

It describes a number of aspects of Sweden’s preventative measures as “inadequate”, such as existing legislation and pandemic preparedness, going on to say that the current system of disease prevention and control is “decentralised and fragmented” to an extent that it is unclear who holds responsibility.

The commission directs strong criticism at the Swedish regions for being slow to introduce large-scale testing, despite instructions from the Public Health Agency and the government, going on to describe it as “a complete failure” that large-scale testing was delayed until discussions about responsibility and funding were resolved.

Criticism is also directed at the Work Environment Authority, after a disagreement between them and the Public Health Agency around the use of PPE led to confusion among workers. The Commission describes the Work Environment Authority’s actions as “a betrayal” of employees forced to work without appropriate PPE.


On a positive note, the commission praises healthcare workers, noting that the healthcare system was able to adapt and scale up care for people affected by Covid-19 “largely thanks” to healthcare staff. However, it notes, this was not without sacrifice, with staff being used “almost to breaking point”. 

You can read more on the Corona Commission's website here, and if you're a member you can sign up for The Local's Inside Sweden newsletter here, to read our editor's thoughts about the report in her Saturday email to members.

What needs to be done to protect against future pandemics?

The commission has a number of suggestions for how these issues could be avoided in future pandemics. 

It calls on the responsible authorities to ensure that there is sufficient capacity to “rapidly scale up” testing and contract tracing in the future. 

On PPE, it states that “national preparedness must be significantly improved, in terms of both maintaining stockpiles and purchasing the necessary products at a national level”. 

Although the report praises healthcare workers and states that the healthcare system “by and large” was successful in making necessary adaptations, the commission suggests that staffing issues within healthcare “must be included in health care contingency planning”, with better working conditions for healthcare workers a good first step towards rectifying these issues.

Will anyone be held accountable for failings?

It's hard to say.

Many of the key figures are stepping down anyway for unrelated reasons. Prime Minister Stefan Löfven is retiring this month, as is Public Health Agency director-general Johan Carlson. State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell is 65 years old and will likely be retiring relatively soon, too. It is not clear what Health Minister Lena Hallengren's role will be in Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson's new government.

Andersson's job in looking after the finances during the pandemic may not be closely enough linked to the health crisis to leave her vulnerable to severe criticism. Sweden's next general election is coming up in September 2022, but it is still too early to tell whether or not the pandemic will be a talking point (most of the opposition supported the government's pandemic measures, at least initially).

When will the final report be released?

A final report is expected by February 2022.

The commission mentions a number of topics which will be addressed in the final report, including the problematic division of responsibilities in the way Sweden has chosen to organise communicable disease and prevention, and an evaluation of Sweden’s choice to use voluntary rather than intrusive measures in tackling the pandemic – which it does not evaluate in the second report.


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