Sweden did ‘too little, too late’ as pandemic swept country

Preparations were insufficient, a commission investigating the country's response to Covid-19 finds

Sweden’s light-touch approach to dealing with Covid-19 has been criticised by a commission reviewing the country’s handling of the pandemic.

Authorities did too little, too late to curb Covid-19 infections, it found.

The early strategy, shunning lockdowns and measures such as face masks, and only gradually tightening curbs, made the country an outlier in the first year of the pandemic, when many countries across Europe chose to implement tougher restrictions.

The report is an indictment of some controversial aspects of Sweden’s strategy in the early phases of the pandemic.

“Sweden’s response to the pandemic has been marked by tardiness,” said the commission, which is due to publish its full assessment next year. “Initial measures were inadequate to halt, or even to significantly reduce, infection rates.”

The almost 1,200-page document says it appears obvious that the initial measures were lacking, both compared with neighbouring countries and in relation to the prevalence of infections.

“Sweden's handling of the pandemic has been marked by a slowness of response,” the commission said.

“The initial disease prevention and control measures were insufficient to stop or even substantially limit the spread of the virus in the country.”

The commission, appointed by the government amid pressure from parliament, also noted that it had taken “far too long” to build sufficient testing capacity with initially only targeted groups, such as healthcare staff, being tested.

Authorities relied heavily on voluntary recommendations for people to socially distance and wash their hands, and public places such as schools, restaurants and businesses remained largely open, with the government leaving much of the responsibility for fighting the virus with the health agency and its chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell.

Sweden has recorded more than 15,000 deaths from coronavirus, many times the per capita level of its Nordic neighbours that implemented tougher restrictions, but still lower than many countries that locked down tightly, such as Britain.

An early lockdown could have prevented nearly 40 per cent of Sweden’s coronavirus deaths in the first wave, a previous study suggested.

Its pandemic strategy has been controversial at home and abroad. Critics have called it reckless and cruel but the approach has also earned praise for being more sustainable and business-friendly, and as a model for living with the virus as it becomes endemic.

Restrictions were gradually tightened in later waves of the pandemic before Sweden, along with other Western countries, began abandoning curbs following the roll-out of vaccines. Nearly all restrictions have now been lifted.

The commission investigating the coronavirus response has no legal power beyond making public its findings with the aim of improving Sweden's ability to handle pandemics and similar situations.

As the second wave hit, Sweden changed tack, introducing more significant restrictions such as a ban on alcohol sales after 8pm and capacity limits on stores. As of late October, more than 15,000 people in Sweden had died after Covid-19 infections, or about 145 per 100,000 of its population. That is below the European Union average, but triple Denmark’s death rate and almost 10 times Norway’s.

The report said that Sweden’s healthcare system largely managed to cope with the demands of the pandemic, mainly thanks to the efforts of staff. However, “that adaptation came at the price of extreme stress on employees, as well as other health care being postponed or cancelled.” Hence, the commission concludes that Sweden “will have to live with the consequences of the pandemic for a long time to come.”

Updated: October 29th 2021, 2:47 PM