By Johan Ahlander and Niklas Pollard
STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – Sweden’s response to the spread of the coronavirus was too slow and preparations for dealing with a pandemic were insufficient, a commission investigating the country’s response to covid-19 said on Friday.
Sweden’s strategy, to avoid closures and measures such as widespread use of face masks and only gradual sharpening of curbs, made the country an extremist during the first year of the pandemic when many countries across Europe chose to impose much tougher restrictions.
The country kept most schools, businesses, bars and restaurants open in astonishing contrast to a locked Europe, and relied on voluntary recommendations even though its death toll quickly exceeded those of its Nordic neighbors.
At the same time, mass tests for the virus and contact tracing were initiated only after a first wave that killed over two thousand people in the country’s nursing homes had almost subsided.
The Commission said that it would address Sweden’s no-lockdown strategy in its final report, but that its preliminary results showed that measures were introduced late both in relation to the country’s Nordic neighbors and the spread of the virus in Sweden in the spring of 2020.
“Sweden’s handling of the pandemic has been characterized by a slow reaction,” says the Commission.
“The initial disease prevention and control measures were insufficient to stop or even significantly limit the spread of the virus in the country.”
The Commission, set up by the government under pressure from Parliament, also noted that it had taken “far too long” to build up sufficient testing capacity with initially only targeted groups, such as healthcare professionals, being tested.
Health Minister Lena Hallengren told Reuters that she would wait for the final report before assessing the overall management, but said that there were things that could have been done better.
“We have started working in many areas, such as preparing a new law on communicable diseases. We are, of course, trying to learn in many areas of this crisis,” she said.
The authorities relied heavily on urging people to distance themselves socially and wash their hands, and the government left a great responsibility to fight the virus on the health authority and its chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell.
Mass tests took months to get underway amid discussions about responsibility and funding, a delay the Commission called “a complete failure”, while noting that the health authority had taken some tougher action during the second wave which it had rejected during the first, likely wound confusion and undermines compliance.
Sweden has registered more than 15,000 deaths from coronavirus, many times the per capita level for its Nordic neighbors, which imposed stricter restrictions, but still lower than in most European countries that locked up hard, such as the United Kingdom.
Its pandemic strategy has been controversial at home and abroad. Critics have called it ruthless and cruel, but the approach has also been praised for being more sustainable and business-friendly and as a model for living with the virus when it becomes endemic.
The restrictions were gradually tightened in later waves by the pandemic before Sweden, together with other western countries, began to abandon curbs after the expansion of vaccines. Almost all restrictions have now been lifted.
The investigation that investigates the coronavirus control has no legal power other than to publish its results in order to improve Sweden’s ability to handle pandemics and similar situations.
(Reportage by Niklas Pollard and Johan Ahlander. Editing by Anna Ringström, Frances Kerry and Toby Chopra)