Explained: What new Covid measures could Sweden introduce in the week ahead?

Explained: What new Covid measures could Sweden introduce in the week ahead?
Commuters wearing face masks at Malmö's central station in January 2021. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT
Sweden is set to introduce new Covid-19 recommendations this week, with more social distancing, home-working, and face masks on crowded public transport likely to be among them.


Why is Sweden introducing stricter Covid-19 recommendations? 

The number of new Covid-19 cases reported a day has more than doubled since mid-November, and has averaged at 186 cases per million people per day over the past week, indicating that fourth wave has finally arrived in Sweden. For now, however, infection rates in Sweden still remain considerably below those of most other European countries, including those of Denmark, Norway and Finland. 

At a press conference on Thursday announcing the plans for more restrictions, the country’s health minister, Lena Hallengren, warned that Sweden was facing “an uncertain winter”. 

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How far-going will the new recommendations be? 

Judging from the press release issued by the Public Health Agency on Thursday, the authorities are not planning anything dramatic. Individuals, businesses, public transport providers, and restaurants and bars, are likely to receive new recommendations, rather than face any mandatory restrictions. 

In particular, there is little chance that Sweden will bring in the mandatory face masks currently imposed in most other European countries, or that the vaccination passes introduced last week for indoor events of more than 100 people will be extended to smaller gatherings, restaurants and bars. 

In a background paper published alongside the press release, the agency states that it considers vaccine passes are “not currently appropriate in environments other than public gatherings and public events”, and would only be considered for restaurants and bars in a situation with an “extremely high infection rate”. 

The agency does concede in the paper that scientific research published between August 2020 and November 2021 now provides “some evidence in favour of the use of face masks”, particularly on public transport. It does not, however, suggest making them mandatory. 

Here is an article explaining how binding Sweden’s allmänna råd or “general recommendations” are. In summary, while the expectation is that everyone should follow them, you cannot be fined or prosecuted if you don’t. 

What will the new recommendations be? 

In the background paper, the agency outlines the recommendations it judges should be given to individuals and businesses as a “first step”.

This is for a situation, like that at present, where the number of cases is rising but where there is not yet a “significantly increased spread of infection” or “a significant increase in the burden on healthcare”.

This means the new recommendations announced this week are likely to include the following: 

For individuals: 

  • Keep your distance in public areas
  • Avoid crowded areas
  • Avoid public transport, if possible
  • Use a face mask on public transport if crowding cannot be avoided 

For employers: 

  • If possible arrange online rather than in-person meetings 
  • Take measures to allow staff to keep a distance, “if possible” 
  • Allow staff to work from home, to “a certain extent” 
  • Avoid large gatherings

For public transport providers: 

  • bring in extra buses or trains to reduce crowding 

For bars and restaurants 

In the first step, bars and restaurants, will be given “recommendations”, rather than see a return to the restrictions imposed last year, such as an 8pm closing time, limitations to the number of allowed customers in each group, a minimum distance between groups, or a requirement for seated service. 

For schools and universities 

In the first step, universities and other providers of adult education will be advised to “avoid large gatherings where it is not possible to keep a distance”. Schools are unlikely to receive any change to their guidance at this stage.

Is there any chance that the government will override the Public Health Agency’s advice and bring in tougher, more precautionary, measures? 

These will be the first new recommendations announced since Magdalena Andersson became Sweden’s prime minister on November 30th. It is possible that she will take more of a leadership role in combatting the pandemic, and so push for tougher measures than those suggested by the Public Health Agency.

But her decision to leave Lena Hallengren in place as Sweden’s health minister perhaps points in the other direction, indicating that she will not change the country’s less interventionist strategy. 

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How will recommendations change if Sweden’s case rates reach those seen elsewhere in Europe? 

In the event of a “significantly increased infection” and “a significant increase in the burden on healthcare”, the Public Health Agency is ready to bring in more thoroughgoing measures. These might include: 

  • The cancellation or postponement of sports competitions and games
  • A partial return to distance education at universities 
  • The return of a requirement for seated service, maximum group sizes, and distance recommendations at bars and restaurants 

In the event of  “extremely high infection rates”, the agency also recommends: 

  • Return to distance learning for upper secondary schools
  • Extension of the vaccine pass for smaller gatherings
  • Early closing times for bars and restaurants
  • Extension of vaccine passes to bars and restaurants
  • Restrictions on the number of people allowed in shopping centres (or a vaccine pass requirement). 

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