Sweden has been an outlier in the global pandemic: It eschewed lockdowns and kept restaurants, bars, schools, movie theaters and gyms mostly open. And while death rates were high compared to its Nordic neighbors, they were comparable to those of larger European countries.
Now, a second wave has brought a new surge in infections and Stockholm’s emergency services are overrun, forcing the authorities to recalibrate their approach. They imposed new restrictions at the end of November that bring the country’s response somewhat more in line with the rest of Europe. They include drastic cutbacks on the size of public gatherings and some school closures.
But with ski lifts, restaurants and bars all remaining open, Sweden’s tougher restrictions still pale in comparison to the rest of Europe and there are mounting concerns that not enough is being done. Intensive care beds in hospitals in the Stockholm region are all currently occupied, regional health director Bjorn Eriksson said at a news conference on Tuesday.
“We are far beyond 100 percent of capacity in intensive care. We are approaching almost double the number of available spaces,” he said.
Since the pandemic began, a debate has raged both inside and outside of Sweden over how to curb the virus. As other countries went into lockdown in the spring, Sweden stayed open out of concern that keeping everyone holed up at home would have long-term detrimental effects on children and adults and could lead to depression, suicide, postponed health care and job losses.
On Monday, the Swedish prime minister, Stefan Lofven, said the country’s experts had underestimated the likelihood of a second wave. It was the first time an official criticized, even obliquely, the Public Health Agency of Sweden, the expert group tasked with making coronavirus policies, and the epidemiologist who leads it, Anders Tegnell.
In October, Mr. Tegnell said that he hoped that the spread of immunity in the population would help Sweden get through the fall with a low level of cases.
“I think that most in the profession did not see a second wave coming,” Mr. Lofven said in an interview with Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet.
Mr. Tegnell’s agency is no longer calling all the shots on virus policy and he is having to increasingly share the stage with Swedish politicians who have taken on a more active role.
During the first wave, deaths were high, especially among the elderly. On Tuesday, a special commission concluded in an initial report that the government had failed to protect the elderly and was unprepared for the pandemic. That said, death tolls among those above 80 have been high all across Europe.
Infection numbers and deaths have been rising steadily since October. By Tuesday, Sweden had reached a total of 320,098 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, while its neighbor Finland, with a population about half of Sweden’s, has 31,110 cases, less than 10 percent of Sweden’s.
Sweden’s total death toll reached 7,667 as of Tuesday. The country now has 74 deaths per 100,000 cases, less than the United Kingdom, with 97, but far more than its neighbor Norway, with seven.
“I’m afraid it’s going to get even worse,” said Karin Hildebrand, a cardiologist in the intensive care unit of the Sodersjukhuset hospital in Stockholm. “We all fear the coming weeks. We do not have enough personnel to deal with this.”
Nurses have left their jobs in large numbers since the beginning of the pandemic.
“Around 3,000 nurses have quit their jobs during the first 10 months of the year,” said Sineva Ribeiro, the president of the Swedish Association of Health Professionals. “Those who remained have been working very, very hard.”
And now the government is coming under criticism for not doing enough.
“I was hoping this grave situation would change things, but yesterday they opened the ski lifts in Sweden,” said Fredrik Elgh, a professor of clinical virology at Umea University and a well-known critic here of the official coronavirus response. “Taking such actions into account, I don’t think the government is taking the firm action I had hoped for.”
Mr. Lofven’s government, in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus, issued new recommendations at the end of November that banned gatherings of more than eight people.
While schools for children under 16 have stayed open throughout the pandemic, some are now being closed after outbreaks. A ban on serving alcohol after 10 p.m. has been implemented. On Monday, a state agency sent out mass text messages warning people to limit Christmas gatherings to a maximum of eight people.
But officials are asking, not ordering.
Under Swedish law, the government isn’t allowed to force people to stay home or fine those who flout the recommendations.
The Netherlands, with lower infection rates than Sweden, went into a full lockdown on Tuesday. Germany will close down most of the country on Wednesday.
Restaurants, coffee shops and bars in Sweden continue to be open.
Face masks aren’t recommended in Sweden because the Public Health Authority says there isn’t enough scientific evidence that they work.
So, on Monday afternoon the “Chic Konditori,” which sells coffee and sweets in Stockholm, was full of customers. Tea Kagstrom, an 18-year-old university student with feathered blond hair, sat with two friends enjoying a cup of coffee. Asked why she wasn’t wearing a face mask, she replied because it’s not obligatory.
“The Public Health Authority hasn’t said that we should wear masks in public places,” she said.
The government is drafting an emergency law that would give it powers to order lockdowns and close down businesses when the virus is spreading.
Still critics are calling for harsher measures.
“We need a few weeks of lockdown to get the numbers down,” said Tove Fall, a professor of molecular epidemiology at Uppsala University near Stockholm. “Other countries are taking much higher precautions at lower transmission levels.”
Some are upset that face masks aren’t used in Sweden.
“We are the only democracy in the world that does not recommend the use of face masks. There are more than 170 countries in the world that recommend using masks. But here they are saying there is not enough science behind that. That is nonsense,” said Mr. Elgh, the virology professor.
But others still argue that the virus threat is overblown.
“Each death is sad but it must be put in proportion. About 85 percent of those who died in Sweden also had another disease, and many of those who died this spring would likely have died later this year,” Johnny Ludvigsson, a pediatrician at Linkoping University, said in an interview with the newspaper Aftonbladet.
“I think we are being overly dramatic about the number of deaths during the corona pandemic,” he said. “Compare that with what will happen when we get increased mortality among younger people due to increased heart attacks, late diagnosis of cancer or increased levels of depression that can end in suicide.”