Sweden’s parliament passed an emergency law Friday empowering the government to impose coronavirus-related lockdowns after nearly a year of avoiding some public health measures that have become the norm across Europe and much of the world.
“We see a great risk that we will be in a difficult situation for some time ahead,” Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven told the country’s broadcaster Friday before the law’s passage, Bloomberg News reported. “Of course, that means the pandemic law should be utilized, and we will use it in the near term.”
Sweden’s shift in strategy comes at a new stage in the pandemic: the world is unfurling vaccine programs at the same time that many countries are battling dangerous surges in coronavirus cases.
The Swedish law goes into effect Sunday and permits the government to “introduce special restrictions for both certain activities and places,” according to a statement on the parliament’s website.
“If necessary, it will be possible to prohibit public gatherings of a certain size at places to which the public have access and close premises that serve food and drink,” the statement continues.
“We will see if we can do more in public transport, but it could also be about gyms, sports facilities, events and businesses that operate premises for parties,” Löfven said of the law’s application. “It could also be about stores.”
The Riksdag, Sweden’s legislature, additionally called on the government to clarify elements of the legislation, including what compensation would be provided to affected businesses.
Sweden had until recently followed a largely voluntary approach to virus precautions such as social distancing. It also avoided widespread school closures and mask mandates. But the attention-grabbing decision to keep communities and economies open came at a cost: With more than 9,200 deaths related to covid-19, Sweden has the highest per capita death rate of all Scandinavian countries.
While public health experts in Sweden have argued that voluntary measures can significantly reduce transmission, the country is now struggling to handle a surge in cases at overstretched hospitals.
“We have a lot of patients being admitted to intensive care units, and there is no sign of that decreasing,” Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, said Tuesday, Bloomberg reported. “Unfortunately, the same goes for fatalities.”
As the pandemic continues, Sweden has incrementally changed course. On Thursday, a new measure went into effect requiring masks on public transportation during rush hour. Some high school grades closed for two months in December, while other high school classes have been encouraged to remain open but told to close if needed.
Meanwhile, in recent weeks, several Swedish leaders have been caught flouting the covid-19 guidelines they issued.
Last month, Lofven was criticized for violating social distancing guidelines when he went on a pre-Christmas shopping trip in central Stockholm. The public was further incensed when the finance minister was photographed at a ski resort that authorities had labeled a virus hot spot and urged people to avoid. Following a Christmas holiday trip to the Canary Islands, the head of the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency resigned this month for contravening recommendations against unnecessary travel.
In an annual end-of-the-year speech, Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf last month directly criticized the country’s trajectory in handling the pandemic.
“I think we have failed,” he said. “We have a large number who have died and that is terrible.”