Sweden and Denmark are to instigate inquiries into their Covid-19 lockdown strategies as northern Europe greets the summer with increasingly relaxed restrictions on travel and gatherings.
On Wednesday Anders Tegnell, the Swedish state epidemiologist, said his lighter-touch lockdown – based more on voluntary rather than mandatory restrictions – had “absolutely” claimed too many lives. With his knowledge of today, he told Swedish radio, he would “settle on doing something in between what Sweden did and what the rest of the world has done”.
In a separate interview with the Dagens Nyheter daily, a vocal critic of his strategy, a more defensive Tegnell insisted the “basic strategy has worked”.
“Based on the knowledge we had then, we feel we made the appropriate decisions,” he said.
Sweden’s departure from the European pandemic mainstream attracted global attention in the early stages of the lockdown, but now faces growing criticism at home.
In the week to June 2nd, Sweden’s death rate per capita was the highest in the world. Since its first reported case on January 31st, the country – which has a population of 10 million – has recorded 4,468 coronavirus-related deaths. Neighbouring Norway and Denmark, with populations of 5.4 million and 5.8 million, have recorded 237 and 580 deaths respectively.
As the summer holiday season kicks off, Denmark and Norway have frozen Sweden out of a travel deal that, from June 15th, will allow Danes and Norwegians to visit each other’s countries once more.
“Denmark and Sweden are at different places in relation to the coronavirus [pandemic], and this has a bearing on what we can decide in relation to the border,” said Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen.
As a reward for what she called Danes’ “exemplary behaviour” during the lockdown, a third reopening phase from next Monday is expected to allow gatherings of up to 50 people.
Even as Denmark edges back towards normality, police in Copenhagen have had to impose fines of 2,500 kroner (€335) to keep people away from popular waterside sunbathing areas in the capital that became crowded during recent good weather.
Ending the Danish political ceasefire, opposition parties have secured an independent inquiry – headed by five non-political experts – into Denmark’s preparedness for the crisis, the resources available and their deployment. Of particular interest are claims the government’s lockdown was more rigid than recommendations of its official bodies.
Sweden’s prime minister Stefan Löfven has promised a similar inquiry. He told the Aftonbladet daily his country’s approach “has been right” but acknowledged a massive failure to protect care home residents – where more than half of all Swedish deaths from Covid-19 have occurred.
Sweden’s previous chief epidemiologist, Annika Linde, has said she dropped her initial support for the more liberal lockdown when she realised there was “no strategy at all for the elderly”.
“I do not understand how they can stand and say the level of preparedness was good,” she said, “when in fact it was lousy.”
Across continental Europe, authorities face a complex balancing act between public health concerns and a summer holiday mood.
On Wednesday Germany’s federal government lifted its travel warning for other European Union and EEA countries, as well as the UK. But Berlin’s local health authorities fear a renewed lockdown may be looming, as a rise in outdoor gatherings has been accompanied by a rise in the city’s infection rate. Officials in the capital criticised a spontaneous weekend rave of 400 dinghies that clogged up a city canal with no social distancing.
Meanwhile in Austria an investigation has begun into how the ski resort of Ischgl became a coronavirus super-spreader, with a report due in October.