Pandemic fatigue tests Sweden's soft-touch Covid strategy

Country has shunned calls for lockdown and relies on people adopting measures voluntarily

A woman rides an electric scooter wearing a protective mask, amid the continuous spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, along Standvagen in Stockholm, Sweden, November 20, 2020. TT News Agency/Fredrik Sandberg via REUTERS      ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. SWEDEN OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SWEDEN.
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Sweden's reluctance to impose Covid lockdowns is being tested by growing pandemic fatigue during a third wave, with the rapid spread of a more contagious variant first identified in Britain.

The Nordic country has shunned lockdowns during the pandemic, relying on social distancing and hygiene recommendations. Schools and businesses have mostly stayed open.

The Swedish Health Agency has said voluntary measures can achieve as much as lockdowns without harming the economy, child welfare and the general health of the population to the same extent.

It said the less intrusive strategy is more sustainable over time. But authorities have found that adherence to protocols may be flagging.

"There's quite a bit of what is called 'pandemic fatigue' to keep in mind," chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell said this month.

"We saw a good effect after the measures put in place in November and December, but now we have to increase [measures] again."

A new law comes into effect on Thursday that would allow the government to shut businesses in what would be the most drastic measures yet.

Health Minister Lena Hallengren said on Wednesday that there were no immediate plans for a lockdown.

Sweden has had infections rise again after falling in January and February.

Combined with the rise of the British variant and a beleaguered healthcare system, the situation has led to calls for a lockdown.

"We are in the midst of a third wave and for it not to turn into an uncontrollable tsunami, we need to take tough action early," said opposition Centre party leader Annie Loof this week.

Ms Loof wants to close shopping malls for three weeks.

Sweden has gradually added more binding restrictions and tougher recommendations since November.

Restaurants and cafes have to close by 8.30pm, while shops have crowd limits.

Not everyone is so sure about the benefits of a lockdown.

"What's the point of locking down a year after the pandemic started?" asked Thomas Yavuz, 35, owner of a pizzeria in central Stockholm.

"The one thing I liked about the Swedish model was that it gave us personal responsibility, but stricter rules would take that out of our hands."

While infections have risen, deaths have declined over the past two months, a trend authorities believe has been caused by the introduction of vaccines.