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COVID-19 RULES

Sweden’s pandemic strategy ‘fundamentally correct’: Coronavirus Commission

Sweden's Covid-19 response was "fundamentally correct", but the government should have taken the lead, and brought in earlier and tougher measures, the country's Coronavirus Commission has concluded.

Corona Commission chair Mats Melin and his fellow members Vesna Jovic (r) and Göran Stienstedt (l) at a press conference after delivering their final conclusions.
Corona Commission chair Mats Melin and his fellow members Vesna Jovic (r) and Göran Stienstedt (l) at a press conference after delivering their final conclusions. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

“It was fundamentally right to rely on issuing advice and recommendations,” Mats Melin, the commission’s chair said at a press conference after issuing the report. “The state should not limit the freedom of the individual more than is necessary to limit a dangerous sickness.” 

In addition, he noted, countries which had imposed greater restrictions had not necessarily had better outcomes. 

“We are not convinced that long-lasting and repeated lockdowns are necessary element in the response to a new, serious epidemic outbreak,” he said. 

Sweden made headlines early on in the pandemic by not introducing a lockdown, instead issuing recommendations on home-working, social distancing and good hand hygiene.

But tougher measures should have been introduced in February-March 2020, Melin said, with the measures that were imposed “too few” and coming “too late”. 

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While the commission hailed Sweden’s decision to keep most schools open during the first wave, it said that by March 2020 there “should have been temporary closures” of indoor places where people gather, such as shopping centres, restaurants, sport events and so on.”

In particular, it criticised the fact that it took until the end of March 2020 for the limit on public gatherings to be lowered to 50 people. 

It also said that those returning from ski trips in Italy at the end of February and the start of March should have been asked to quarantine, while incoming travel should have temporarily been stopped for all but the most necessary journeys, as happened in Denmark and Norway.   

In an interview with The Local, Sweden’s health minister Lena Hallengren welcomed the commission’s conclusion that the fundamental strategy had been correct. 

“That the commission concludes that the overall strategy based on non-invasive recommendations and a non-lockdown policy, that they think that was the right choice. I think that’s good,” she said. 

At later stages of the pandemic, Sweden eventually introduced stricter measures, including bans on elderly home visits, earlier closings at bars and restaurants, and vaccine passes for indoor events.

The commission also said the government should have assumed leadership of all aspects of Covid crisis management, despite the Public Health Agency’s large degree of autonomy and a healthcare system managed by self-governing regional councils.

“The government had too one-sided a dependence on assessments made by the Public Health Agency”, it said.

It was not until the end of October that the government began to try to take a leading role, with documentation obtained by the commission showing the then Prime Minister Stefan Löfven trying to take more precedence over the Public Health Agency. 

The government, it concluded, should also have sought to get alternative views from other infectious disease and public health experts, rather than relying solely on the Public Health Agency’s expertise.   

Hallengren told The Local that she rejected this aspect of the report. 

“The government has been the one leading and deciding, and we are responsible,” she said. 

She also rejected the claim that the government had been over-reliant on the agency’s experts. 

“They can have their opinion about that, but the fact is, that the Public Health Agency is not an expert, it’s hundreds of experts, who are working with infection control and working with public health issues all the time,” she said. “It would be very strange if I, as minister for health, or the government, relied on specific or unique experts instead of this very big expert authority when it comes to epidemiological knowledge.”

An earlier partial report by the commission had also criticised the country’s slowness is setting up adequate testing measures.

With more than 17,000 fatalities so far, Sweden’s death toll is slightly better than the European average but is far higher per capita than those of neighbouring Norway, Finland and Denmark.

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COVID-19 ALERT

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.

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