Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Lofven plans to quickly deploy a new law that lets his government shutter businesses and impose fines, bringing his country closer to the kind of lockdown it had earlier shunned.
“These measures are far-reaching but they are necessary, not least to alleviate the situation for the health care workers, who are toiling day and night,” Lofven said on Friday.
The law, which goes into force on Sunday, lets the government deploy the toughest restrictions yet to contain transmission of the coronavirus. While such measures have been common across most of the world during the pandemic, Sweden has so far relied mainly on voluntary social distancing, allowing much of society to remain open.
Sweden’s strategy has been hotly contested, with critics pointing to a much higher death rate than elsewhere in the Nordics as proof of its failure. But the officials who devised the model have said voluntary measures can go a long way toward containing transmission, and that lockdowns tend to take a heavy toll on society.
The government may fine or close down businesses that fail to follow restrictions on the number of people allowed into stores, gyms and shopping centers, Lofven said at a press briefing on Friday. An eight-person cap on public gatherings will be broadened to include private events, he added.
“The Swedish Covid strategy has always meant combining rules and prohibitions with allowing people to take responsibility for themselves,” Lofven said. “At the same time, it has been obvious that Sweden needed more specific legislation to curb transmission.”
With the second wave of the pandemic hitting Sweden harder than health officials expected, putting extreme pressure on its hospitals, the government has shown increasing willingness to move to more binding rules. But there’s growing concern that the tougher measures are coming too late.
Lofven has also seen voter confidence slump after he was caught flouting his own government’s guidelines when he went shopping in central Stockholm just before Christmas.
He’s not the only official to have been caught appearing to ignore the recommendations. Finance minister Magdalena Andersson was photographed renting skis at a popular resort singled out by health authorities as a place to avoid, and Dan Eliasson, the director general of the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, asked to resign after a Christmas trip to the Canary Islands.
With Swedish Covid deaths now exceeding 9,000, the chorus of critics has grown louder. Recently, even King Carl XVI Gustaf delivered a rare rebuke, pointing to the high number of fatalities as evidence that Sweden’s Covid response has been a failure.