Sweden has ordered its health authorities to be prepared for a second wave of coronavirus cases this autumn.
The Nordic country says deaths and critical cases have come down despite its controversial decision to reject lockdown measures – but ministers warn that Sweden could be ‘flooded by a second wave of infections’ within months.
Sweden has long boasted that its lockdown-free strategy is more durable because softer restrictions will be accepted for longer, but officials said today that ‘regional regulations’ could be put in place if worrying outbreaks spring up locally.
The government has faced growing criticism of its strategy in recent weeks, with Sweden’s infection rate still high while most of Europe is exiting lockdown.
Sweden’s daily coronavirus deaths (in red) have gradually come down in recent weeks, as shown by the rolling seven-day average (in blue) – but ministers are warning of a second wave
Daily cases (in yellow) have been higher in recent weeks (with the seven-day rolling average in blue), but the Swedish government says this is because of higher testing rates Some days are blank because Sweden has stopped releasing figures at weekends
Sweden’s health minister Lena Hallengren said today that the number of people seriously ill with Covid-19 was continuing on a ‘gratifying’ downward trend.
The total number of new cases was higher in June than in May, but Sweden says this is because of higher testing rates and that the number in intensive care is down.
‘At the same time, we must prepare for the spread of infection to flare up again,’ health minister Hallengren said.
‘Then it is important that we have as good an emergency preparedness as possible to minimise the effects.’
Writing in Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, Hallengren and two other ministers said Sweden should be ‘well prepared for all conceivable scenarios’.
‘We do not know when this global pandemic is over. We do not know how we will be affected this autumn,’ they wrote.
‘We do not know if Sweden will be flooded by a wide second wave of infections or if we will see several smaller local outbreaks in different parts of Sweden.
‘As with most things in this pandemic, we are constantly learning more about both the evolution of the virus and how it is being fought.’
Various government agencies have been tasked with drawing up plans for possible autumn outbreaks – with the Public Health Authority instructed to look at ‘regional regulations where the infection is at its worst’.
Sweden has never gone further than banning care home visits and closing some schools, with bars and shops staying open throughout the crisis.
People walk and sunbathe on a jetty in Malmo last month in a country which has never gone into lockdown – sparking criticism as Sweden’s death toll rose far above that of its neighbours
Health officials have previously said that a wider lockdown would have been useless in preventing care home deaths.
The country’s National Board of Health and Welfare has been ordered to ‘assess what interventions are required in health care and social services’.
Sweden has confirmed 73,061 cases and 5,433 deaths since the pandemic began and its per-capita infection rate is one of the highest in Europe.
Denmark has seen only 607 deaths, with 329 recorded in Finland and 251 in Norway – all of which are about half as large as Sweden.
Deaths in Sweden were down to 140 last week, from 227 the week before. But both figures are higher than the 55 deaths which far more populous Germany suffered last week or the 123 deaths that were recorded in Italy.
The worryingly high numbers have led some European countries to keep their borders closed to Swedes even as they start to reboot their tourism industries.
Sweden is not on the UK’s list of ‘travel corridor’ countries, meaning people travelling from Sweden to England will still have to quarantine for 14 days after July 10.
By contrast, Denmark, Finland and Norway are all on Britain’s approved list and the UK Foreign Office is no longer advising against all but essential travel there.
The size of the outbreak has also led to growing criticism at home, damaging the government’s faith that its strategy would command consent.
Officials cite the ‘high level of trust in government agencies’ in Sweden as a reason for recommending health measures rather than enforcing them.
Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell (pictured) has championed the country’s lockdown-free strategy, questioning the measures imposed by other countries
Last week Sweden announced a commission to evaluate its response to the pandemic, which has been championed by top virologist Anders Tegnell.
Tegnell has defended his strategy and questioned the lockdowns imposed by other countries, and insisted that Sweden’s health system has not been overwhelmed by the crisis – but admitted that the death toll is too high.
Discussing a possible autumn spike, he said in April: ‘If we’re going to get a second wave in the fall with a lot of cases we could easily continue what we’re doing today.’
The commission has a broad mandate to look at how the virus arrived in Sweden, how it spread, the government’s response, and the effect on equality.
‘It is not a question of whether Sweden is going to change as a result of this – the question is how,’ prime minister Stefan Lofven told a news conference last week.
The commission will report on elderly care at the end of November, although its final conclusions are not due until 2022, ahead of a national election.
The government has also pledged a further 5.9 billion crowns (£500million) to increase testing and widen contact tracing across the country.
Sweden has previously touted hopes that the spread of the disease in Stockholm could build up herd immunity among the population.
This is achieved when enough people are immune from a disease that it will not pass through the population and even those who are not immune are shielded.
However, the extent to which people become immune after recovering from the new coronavirus remains a matter of considerable uncertainty.
Tegnell had claimed in April that up to 20 per cent of Stockholm residents were already immune, but a study released in May found the figure was only 7.3 per cent.
The World Health Organization has warned against pinning hopes on herd immunity. Research into a vaccine remains ongoing.