Swedish regions demand tougher local restrictions in row with central government

Richard Orange
·3-min read
People walk near a trash can with a sign reading "The danger is not over - Keep your distance" - REUTERS
People walk near a trash can with a sign reading "The danger is not over - Keep your distance" - REUTERS

Swedish regions are pleading with the central government to introduce tougher coronavirus restrictions amid a new surge in cases.

The head of the region surrounding Sweden's third city, Malmo, has called for tough restrictions similar to those in neighbouring European countries, in an attempt to move the country away from its famed light-touch approach.

"We need to speak out and say what we are thinking," Carl-Johan Sonesson, the chairman of the regional government in Skane, told the Telegraph.

"I think it's better to do more earlier rather than later. I have more sympathy for the thinking of Germany, France and the UK, than with this liberal idea that we should not to do anything."

Mr Sonesson, who is responsible for healthcare and transportation in Sweden's southernmost region, said he was now considering bringing in face masks on public transport and in other public spaces - despite warnings from Sweden's state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell that they can be counterproductive - returning upper secondary schools and gymnasiums to distance-learning, and re-imposing a ban on visits to elderly care homes.  

"It's not legal right now for the municipalities to do it [ban visits], but I think it's maybe the only way if we want to save those people's lives," he said.

Coronavirus Sweden Spotlight Chart - Cases default
Coronavirus Sweden Spotlight Chart - Cases default

Sweden recorded a record number of new infections this week after successfully keeping the virus at bay for months despite no formal lockdown.

Skane on Tuesday became the second region in Sweden to be issued with Sweden's new "local general recommendations", after the number of people testing positive leapt 45 per cent week on week, with the seven-day daily average hitting 268 on Friday, and a record 509 testing positive on Thursday.

"To us, this is something new," Skåne's infectious disease doctor, Eva Melander, told the Telegraph. "Even though we only tested people who were admitted to hospital during the spring, the increase was quite slow, so it is something new for us to see this quick rise."

For the next three weeks, people in Skåne have been asked, if possible, to avoid public transport and shopping centres, museums and libraries, to try to get exercise outside rather than in gyms or swimming pools, to cancel sports competitions for the over 15s, and not to socialise with people they do not normally see every week.

On Thursday, the regions around Stockholm, Gothenburg and Norrköping were also issued with local recommendations, taking the total to five.

While Sweden's regional authorities lack powers to impose mandatory restrictions, this is not the case for municipal leaders, said Mikael Rubin, mayor of the port city of Trelleborg.

Trelleborg on Wednesday closed one of its elderly care homes to visitors.

"That's not even legal, but I can't imagine anyone will sue us for helping to avoid people dying," he said.

It also became one of more than 10 municipalities in Skane to shut museums, libraries and swimming pools, and is now considering closing primary schools, a move that would go directly against Dr Tegnell's advice. It may instead decide to send only half or a quarter of the students home, Mr Rubin said.  

Skåne is not alone in becoming more critical of the way Sweden’s government and health agency have handled the crisis.

On Friday, infectious diseases chiefs from three regions told Sweden's state radio broadcaster that the strategy in the spring had been too Stockholm-centric, with testing restricted to hospitalized patients nationwide because the capital had had too many cases.

Mr Sonesson said it had been difficult for him in the spring to watch tough measures imposed in nearby Denmark, but not by the government in Stockholm.

"It was quite hard to fight against the Swedish Public Health Agency's conservative way of looking at things. It was a little bit frustrating," he said.