STOCKHOLM — As Sweden prepares to face what are likely to be some of the toughest weeks of the coronavirus pandemic yet, inconsistencies in its light-touch strategy are catching even its leaders out.
Sweden’s top brass spent much of December trying to drill into the population the idea that personal responsibility would get Sweden through the COVID crisis.
People were told to avoid traditional Yuletide venues like malls — even if they weren’t closed — and skip holidays overseas.
But it turns out that even if you helped devise the strategy, it isn’t that easy to follow.
First to be caught out was Justice Minister Morgan Johansson, spotted doing some late Christmas shopping at a mall in southern Sweden.
Johansson apologized via social media, saying that while he had followed the rules he had been “careless” and “should have planned the purchase better.”
Next up was Prime Minister Stefan Löfven himself, with photos emerging on December 29 of him buying a present from a central Stockholm mall for his wife earlier the same month.
“With hindsight, of course I now wonder if the present for Ulla could have been ordered online instead, in good time,” he said later.
Finally, and arguably more egregiously, Dan Eliasson, the head of MSB, the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, was reported to have holidayed with family on Gran Canaria, contravening a guideline — but not a law — propagated by his own agency against unnecessary travel.
“I have refrained from many trips during this pandemic, but this one I thought was necessary,” he told Swedish media on his return.
‘Slap in the face’
The lack of an apology struck many Swedes as particularly riling.
“I missed my grandmother’s 90th birthday, my cousin’s 50th birthday and now my dad’s 70th birthday; I haven’t been home since February and have postponed work,” Swedish writer Ann-Helen Laestadius wrote on social media. “To then hear Dan Eliasson’s definition of a necessary trip is like a slap in the face.”
It remains to be seen if Eliasson — a political appointee — can ride out the storm. Interior Minister Mikael Damberg has called him in for a meeting later this week to “discuss the situation that had occurred,” public service television reported.
Sweden’s death rate began spiking for a second time in late autumn and the country has now registered almost 9,000 deaths. Its average seven-day death rate per million citizens of 6.3 currently falls between France at 5.1 and Germany at 7.9. The current U.K. rate is among Europe’s highest at 9.1.
On Tuesday, state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell told a news conference that a lapse in data reporting across the holiday period made it hard to judge exactly how the situation in Sweden and across Europe is developing right now, but he said it was clear that in some countries the infection rate was rising again, and in Sweden health care services were near capacity.
“We also have a potentially serious situation next week with people returning to workplaces and a risk of a further increase in the spread of disease,” he said.
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