Sunday, 25 Oct 2020

Lockdown-free Sweden may impose new Covid restrictions in Stockholm after 'worrying' spike in cases

LOCKDOWN-free Sweden may impose new Covid-19 restrictions in Stockholm after a worrying spike in infections, warn health experts.

About 1,200 new cases and five deaths have been reported in the country since last Friday – a jump from the previous weeks’ average of 200 cases per day.

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The revelation comes a day after an expert lauded the country for beating the killer bug, while claiming there was evidence the epidemic could already be over.

Sweden's recent rise in cases could not be solely pinned on increased testing, the Public Health Agency said on Tuesday.

“The rolling average has increased somewhat,” confirmed Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist who organised its famously laid-back pandemic response.

“It hasn’t affected the healthcare [sector] – yet. The number of new cases at ICU is very low and the number of deaths are very low,” he added.

Mr Tegnell said that new measures for the capital could not be ruled out.

“We have a discussion with Stockholm about whether we need to introduce measures to reduce the spread of infection.

"Exactly what that will be, we will come back to in the next few days,” he said.

Earlier on Tuesday, Stockholm’s top health official also warned that the region had seen a spike in infections.

“The downwards trend is broken,” said Stockholm Director of Health and Medical Services Bjorn Eriksson.

He added: “We can only hope that this is a blip, that the spread starts decreasing again.

"That depends on how well we follow the guidelines."

Sweden has reported 5,870 deaths since the start of the pandemic – many more per capita than its Nordic neighbours, but also lower than countries like Spain and Italy that opted for hard lockdowns.

Mr Tegnell has recently refused to rule out a second wave of coronavirus infections in Sweden.

A particular concern is the return of students to high schools for the first time since March.

Associated Press reported on Monday: "Whether on trains or trams, in supermarkets or shopping malls – places where face masks are commonly worn in much of the world – Swedes go about their lives without them.

"When most of Europe locked down their populations early in the pandemic by closing schools, restaurants, gyms and even borders, Swedes kept enjoying many freedoms."

Scientists believe the policy of refusing to shut the country down have helped to build "herd immunity" – and prevent a second wave.

Prof Kim Sneppen, an expert in the spread of coronavirus at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, said: “There is some evidence that the Swedes have built up a degree of immunity to the virus which, along with what else they are doing to stop the spread, is enough to control the disease.

“Perhaps, the epidemic is over there.”

Earlier this year, Sweden avoided a lockdown and instead emphasised personal responsibility, social distancing and good hygiene in a bid to slow rather than eradicate a disease deemed here to stay.

Prof Sneppen told Denmark’s Politiken newspaper the virus may have even run out of steam.

And a World Health Organization Europe official suggested the continent could learn broader lessons from Sweden that could help the virus battle elsewhere.

“We must recognise that Sweden, at the moment, has avoided the increase that has been seen in some of the other countries in western Europe,” WHO's senior emergency officer, Catherine Smallwood, said last Thursday.

She added: “I think there are lessons for that. We will be very keen on working and hearing more from the Swedish approach.”

Sweden, at the moment, has avoided the increase that has been seen in some of the other countries in western Europe.

According to the European Centre for Disease Control, Sweden has reported just 30.3 new Covid-19 cases per 100,000 inhabitants during the past fortnight.

This compares to 292.2 in Spain, 172.1 in France, 61.8 in the UK and 69.2 in Denmark, all of which imposed strict lockdowns early in the pandemic.

Overall, Sweden has had 57.5 Covid-19 related deaths per 100,000 inhabitants since the beginning of the worldwide pandemic.

A cautious Mr Tegnell told AP this week: “We need to be very careful and find the first sign that something is going on so that we can do as much as possible to prevent it from escalating."

However, as in other countries, including in the UK, localised outbreaks had been predicted in Sweden.

But rather than fight them with nationwide rules, officials plan to use targeted actions based on testing, contact-tracing and isolating patients rapidly.

“It’s very important that we have quick and local response to hit down the virus without making restrictions for the whole country,” Health Minister Lena Hallengren said last week.

From the beginning of the pandemic, health officials have argued that Sweden was pursuing a sustainable approach toward the virus that the population could adopt – for years, if necessary.

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” became a slogan repeated by ministers at every opportunity, given that neither a vaccine nor a cure yet exists.

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