Sweden should have adopted stricter early measures and the government assumed clearer leadership when COVID-19 hit, although the mostly voluntary non-lockdown strategy was broadly correct, a commission said on Friday. to review the country’s response to the pandemic.
Sweden has polarized opinion at home and abroad with its handling of the pandemic, opting against the lockdowns put in place by many countries and adopting a largely voluntary approach of promoting social distancing and good hygiene.
The commission – set up by the government under pressure from parliament – said Sweden’s general policy was “fundamentally correct”.
“This meant that citizens retained more personal freedom than in many other countries,” the report said.
But the panel of eight experts, including professors of economics and political science, said the government should have taken clearer leadership and acted sooner on measures such as capacity limits and masks.
“The government should have assumed leadership in all aspects of crisis management from the outset,” the commission said in the report. He concluded that the government had too one-sided reliance on assessments by the Public Health Agency.
“In February-March 2020, Sweden should have opted for more stringent and intrusive disease prevention and control measures.”
‘Remarkable’ lag in indoor ceilings cited
The results could become a liability for the ruling Social Democrats with general elections scheduled for September. More than 17,000 people have died from or with COVID-19 in Sweden, far more per capita than in its Nordic neighbors but fewer than in most European countries that have opted for lockdown.
Figures from statistics agency Eurostat showed the country recorded 7.7% more deaths in 2020 than its average for the previous four years, among the lowest excess death rates in Europe.
“In the light of current knowledge… the Commission is not convinced that prolonged or recurrent compulsory confinements, as introduced in other countries, are a necessary element in the response to a new serious epidemic.
Moreover, the report argues that the “right balance” has been struck in terms of the education sector. Preschools and elementary schools remained open, with universities and the equivalent of high schools switching to remote learning.
But a number of criticisms have been leveled at the central government and its main public health agency, including in areas around preparedness and unclear lines of jurisdiction.
“In a crisis, there should be no uncertainty as to who is in charge,” the experts wrote.
Flaws were found especially in the first weeks of the pandemic. Unlike many developed and Western countries, Sweden did not order temporary closures of many indoor spaces in early or mid-March 2020, in part due to questioning whether there was a legal basis or legislation to do so.
The commission said it was “remarkable that it took until March 29, 2020 for the limit on public gatherings and events to be lowered to 50 people”.
In April, the country’s daily pandemic reports regularly showed triple-digit COVID death totals.
Omicron Restrictions Recently Removed
In January 2021, Sweden experienced another very large coronavirus wave. The commission said more could have been done in the fall of 2020 to prepare for this eventuality, which scientific experts had warned countries in the northern hemisphere against.
“The Public Health Agency should not have rejected the use of masks as a disease prevention and control measure indoors and on public transport,” the commission said.
Sweden made some adjustments to its approach in early January in light of the sweep of the Omicron variant across much of the world, but earlier this month said it was no longer needed. Restaurants and bars are now open, with no time or capacity limits.
The country’s health agency said it was scrapping large-scale testing because it was deemed too expensive compared to the benefits. Sweden has spent the equivalent of about C$67 million a week on testing for the first five weeks of this year and about $3 billion since the start of the pandemic.