Did Sweden’s no-lockdown COVID strategy work?

Andy Wells
·Freelance Writer
·4-min read
Swedish flags fly in front of the Royal Palace in Stockholm on May 29, 2020, amid the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. - Sweden's two biggest opposition parties called Friday for an independent commission to be appointed within weeks to probe the country's response to the new coronavirus. (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP) (Photo by JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images)
Swedish flags fly in front of the Royal Palace in Stockholm. (Getty)

Sweden’s light-touch response to the coronavirus pandemic has come under the spotlight after it announced swaths of new measures following a rise in infections.

The Swedish government, which has chosen to avoid implementing a full national lockdown, has now moved to cut the size of public gatherings to eight, amid record daily numbers of new cases.

Previously, gatherings of up to a maximum of 300 people were permitted, depending on the type of event, but prime minister Stefan Lofven said Swedes are not sticking to coronavirus recommendations as well as they did in the spring.

"This is the new norm for the entire society," Lofven told a news conference.

"Don't go to gyms, don't go to libraries, don't host dinners. Cancel."

The number of people in Swedish hospitals has also risen as a result of the cases uptick, with recent figures showing the rate of admissions was growing faster than any other European country.

Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Lofven gives a press conference on the new restrictions to curb the spread of the corona (Covid-19) pandemic, in Stockholm on November 11, 2020. - The Swedish government proposes an alcohol sale stop after 10 pm from November 20 until the end of February 2021. (Photo by Henrik MONTGOMERY / TT News Agency / AFP) / Sweden OUT (Photo by HENRIK MONTGOMERY/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)
Sweden's prime minister Stefan Lofven has announced new measures to tackle coronavirus. (Getty)

Data from the European Centre of Disease Control showed there were 2,866 people in intensive care in Sweden last week, while the total number of people in hospital was doubling every eight days.

This is a faster rate than both Austria and Slovakia, where hospital admissions are doubling every nine days.

Sweden has registered 15,084 new coronavirus cases since Friday, Health Agency statistics showed on Tuesday – a small decrease compared with the 15,779 cases recorded the corresponding period last week.

Watch: Why hasn’t Sweden gone into lockdown?

The daily death toll from the disease has also climbed after having slowed to single digits during an extended summer lull, when many Swedes gradually began to live their lives more normally.

The figures showed Sweden registered 61 new deaths on Tuesday, taking the total to 6,225.

The country’s death rate per capita is several times higher than that of its Nordic neighbours but lower than in some larger European countries such as Spain.

What was Sweden’s approach?

Sweden is one of just a few countries that did not impose a compulsory lockdown to deal with coronavirus, a decision that has garnered it global attention.

While other countries across Europe brought in tough restrictions that kept people at home, restrictions in Sweden were voluntary.

Restaurants and bars were not closed, people were told to go to work when if they were able to, and the government did not recommend the wearing of face coverings.

Until recently, daily new coronavirus cases remained stable.

Guests enjoy their meal at a fast food restaurant next to taped off tables in central Stockholm on November 12, 2020, amid the ongoing novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. - The Swedish government has proposed a stop for the sale of alcohol after 10 pm from November 20 until the end of February, to curb the spread of the virus. Faced with the worsening of the Covid-19 epidemic in the country, the Swedish government on November 11 urged the population to follow health rules, although they are not coercive. (Photo by Fredrik SANDBERG / TT News Agency / AFP) / Sweden OUT (Photo by FREDRIK SANDBERG/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)
Guests enjoy their meal at a fast-food restaurant next to taped-off tables in central Stockholm, Sweden. (Getty)

People with symptoms were asked – and not forced – to stay at home and self-isolate so businesses and schools could remain open.

The government argued that allowing the population to develop herd immunity – essentially allowing people to catch COVID and recover, developing immunity in the process – was a better strategy than attempting to contain the disease through lockdowns while waiting for a cure.

But critics argued that because COVID is a new disease, it is hard to predict how long any immunity would last, and said up to 70% of a population would need to catch – and recover – from COVID for this approach to be an effective strategy.

People sit in a restaurant in Stockholm on May 29, 2020, amid the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. - Sweden's two biggest opposition parties called Friday for an independent commission to be appointed within weeks to probe the country's response to the new coronavirus. (Photo by Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP) (Photo by JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images)
People sit in a restaurant in Stockholm in May, as the government refused to impose a compulsory lockdown. (Getty)

Has it worked?

Deaths in Sweden initially spiked at the start of the pandemic, before starting to drop by the middle of April and remaining relatively stable since then.

In total, there have been 6,225 deaths in Sweden, compared with 298 in Norway, 674 in Denmark and 371 in Finland, nearby countries where national lockdowns were introduced.

However, Sweden has a population of roughly 10 million people – around double the population of each of its Nordic neighbours.

People walk past a trash can with a sign reading "The danger is not over - Keep your distance" in a pedestrian street in central Uppsala, Sweden, on Octtober 21, 2020. - Due to an increase of coronavirus Covid-19 cases in the region of Uppsala, new local recommended restrictions have been instated to curb the corona pandemic. (Photo by Claudio BRESCIANI / TT News Agency / AFP) / Sweden OUT (Photo by CLAUDIO BRESCIANI/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)
People walk past a sign reading 'The danger is not over – Keep your distance' in a pedestrian street in central Uppsala, Sweden. (Getty)

Nevertheless, the death rate per capita is several times higher than that of its Nordic neighbours, if somewhat lower than some larger European countries such as Spain.

Norway has seen a recent and sudden spike in new cases, reaching 1,737 on Tuesday, while Denmark has seen a more gradual rise since the start of September.

Daily new cases in Sweden reached 3,756 on Tuesday, although this is a notable drop from the 6,738 figure from last week.

Deaths in Sweden in 2020 are also trending within the 10-year average, according to data from statista.com.

STOCKHOLM, Nov. 3, 2020 -- A man wearing a face mask walks in the street during the COVID-19 pandemic in Stockholm, capital of Sweden, on Nov. 3, 2020. (Photo by Wei Xuechao/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/Wei Xuechao via Getty Images)
A man wearing a face mask walks in the street in Stockholm, Sweden, where coverings are not compulsory. (Getty)

Figures released in August showed that Sweden’s economy fared better than its European cousins, shrinking 8.6% in April to June.

The EU as a whole, where stricter regulations were largely in place, saw its economy shrink by 11.9% in the same period.

Countries where some of the strictest measures were enforced saw substantially larger drops in the economy, including Spain (18.9%), Italy (12.4%) and the UK (20.4%).

Watch: The exceptions for going outside during England's second national lockdown

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