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Sweden reverses course, pushes masks and other restrictions as virus cases rise

Swedish authorities issue work from home order, put limits on restaurants, but refrain from imposing a full lockdown

Benches are taped off as people stroll at the Granbystaden shopping center in Uppsala, Sweden, on December 18, 2020, during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic (Henrik MONTGOMERY/AFP)
Benches are taped off as people stroll at the Granbystaden shopping center in Uppsala, Sweden, on December 18, 2020, during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic (Henrik MONTGOMERY/AFP)

Sweden on Friday did a U-turn on face masks, saying they should be worn on public transport at peak times, having previously resisted their use in the fight against COVID-19 except in healthcare.

Sweden has stood out among European nations for its comparatively hands-off response to the pandemic. The Scandinavian country has not gone into lockdowns or closed businesses, relying instead on citizens’ sense of civic duty to control infections.

Swedish authorities tightened other restrictions by requiring people to work from home and reducing the number who can gather in restaurants, shops and gyms starting next week, but decided against ordering a full lockdown.

Announcing the new measures, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven told a news conference the Public Health Agency was now “recommending face masks and that they should be used on public transport at certain times.”

Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Lofven speaks with the media as he arrives for an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels, December 10, 2020. (John Thys, Pool via AP)

The country’s health officials have repeatedly been questioned on the reluctance to order mask-wearing but Johan Carlson, director of the Public Health Agency, stressed Friday they maintained that face masks should not be considered a substitute for keeping physical distance, and the recommendation was limited to situations where that was impossible.

“We don’t think it will have a deciding effect, but in this specific situation it can have a positive effect,” Carlson said, adding that wearing them in the street did not seem to be significant.

In addition to the face mask recommendation, Lofven said that as of December 24, the maximum number of people allowed to share a restaurant table would be limited to four and restaurants and bars would not be allowed to sell alcohol after 8:00 p.m.

Lofven said people with non-essential jobs will be required to work from home, and Education Minister Anna Ekstrom said schools should continue to plan for distance education.

“The situation unfortunately continues to be very serious. The spread of infection is high and the situation in healthcare is very strained,” Lofven said, urging people to take precautions and limit their Christmas celebrations.

The government said that caps on the number of visitors to stores and gyms would be introduced, and warned they could be closed if it was not effective.

People chat and drink in, Stockholm, Sweden, April 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

Swedish officials said earlier this week that the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations had topped a peak registered in April, with more than 2,500 admissions.

The number of deaths in the country of 10.3 million reached 7,993 on Friday, with more than 500 people in the past week and nearly 2,000 since the beginning of November.

Cited initially worldwide for its softer approach to fighting the pandemic, Sweden has tightened preventative measures in recent months.

As cases multiplied, authorities urged people to limit social interactions to immediate family or a few friends. A ban on public gatherings of more than eight people took effect last month.

The government and Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, repeatedly defended the country’s coronavirus strategy while reporting one of the world’s highest per capita COVID-19 mortality rates. Tegnell said earlier this week that the death toll “is likely to continue to rise in the coming weeks.”

Contrary to media reports, the country never aimed for so-called herd immunity as part of its official strategy.

But health officials did argue that widespread infections earlier this year should weaken a second wave, until numbers started climbing in mid-October.

Rather than clamping down now, Lofven said the government was pursuing a long-term strategy because “people would not put up” with a strict lockdown.

“We believe that a lockdown is a burden for the population,” Lofven said. “We are following our strategy.”

The government is preparing a one-year “pandemic law” that could limit the number of people in public places and regulate businesses and services by restricting opening hours or forcing them to close.

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