Sweden covid test
A person wearing a protective mask collects coronavirus self tests from people in cars at a testing site in the car park of Svagertorp railway station, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Malmo, Sweden. Image Credit: Reuters

Stockholm: Sweden, known for its anti-lockdown strategy, is embarking on an historic set of restrictions as authorities acknowledge that measures taken to date have failed to contain the virus.

The dramatic shift comes as corners of Sweden’s health-care system show signs of buckling under the pressure of the pandemic. Stockholm’s intensive care units were nearly overwhelmed earlier this month, and authorities in the country are now working on contingency plans to avoid a dangerous lack of staff.

“We have a serious transmission,” Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said on Friday. “Health care is very stretched.”

Almost 8,000 Swedes have died of COVID-19. That’s roughly eight times as many as in neighboring Denmark and 20 times as many as in Norway. On Thursday, Sweden recorded its highest new case count yet, at 9,659.

Neighboring Denmark, once a success story for its early handling of the virus, has also failed to escape a severe second wave. It suffered its worst day yet for new cases on Friday, with over 4,500 infected over the past 24 hours.

Though the development overall reflects increased testing, more people are also being hospitalized, according to the authorities.

Face masks

In a break with Sweden’s previous skepticism toward face masks, it will now be required to use them on public transport during rush hour. All public venues such as museums and sports centers need to be shuttered. Shops will initially be forced to impose limits on customer numbers, though Lofven said they may have to close entirely if case numbers don’t come down.

Lofven’s government is now preparing the legislative groundwork to give it the scope to impose a lockdown, if it deems the step necessary.

Polls show Swedes are losing faith in their country’s strategy, with even Carl XVI Gustaf delivering a rare rebuke this week. In an interview with local broadcaster SVT, the monarch said Sweden’s high death toll shows the authorities have “failed” to protect the people from the virus.

Sweden, which had been counting on seeing some effects of herd immunity after so many people were exposed to the virus, is now waiting for vaccinations to start next quarter.

“The vaccine will be a new and welcome tool but until then we need to hold out,” Lofven said.