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No-lockdown Sweden balks at the possibility it could be excluded as Nordics reopen borders

People sit on terrace tables at cafe in Stockholm, Sweden, on Thursday, March 26, 2020. Sweden is starting to look like a global outlier in its response to the coronavirus.

Bloomberg

As Sweden’s Nordic neighbors look to reopen borders and lift travel restrictions, worries over Stockholm’s controversial approach to the coronavirus has increased concerns that it could be excluded from those plans.

Sweden’s Foreign Minister Ann Linde said Tuesday that the EU had cautioned against discriminating when opening borders, and that any decision to exclude the country from an agreement between the Nordic states would be a political decision.

“It is a very complicated issue, and I think that all politicians in every country should also look at the long-term effect before they take very politically-motivated decisions,” she told reporters at a briefing in Stockholm Tuesday, according to Reuters.

Linde’s comments come after Cyprus said it would not permit direct flights from Sweden when it opens up on June 9, but would allow inbound flights from Norway, Denmark and Finland.

There is a nervousness over Sweden because, unlike its neighbors and most of Europe, it kept much of its public and social life open as the coronavirus spread throughout Europe in late February and March.

The government allowed Sweden’s bars, restaurants and schools for under-16s to remain open, although it banned mass gatherings and visits to elderly care homes (which have seen acute outbreaks of the virus), while advocating social distancing, working from home and good personal hygiene. 

The strategy has been controversial and attracted global attention, and some criticism. Data shows that the country of around 10 million has recorded 34,440 cases and 4,125 deaths. This is far higher than its Nordic neighbors, which each have populations of around 5 million; Norway has recorded 235 deaths, Denmark has recorded 563 deaths and Finland has reported 312 deaths.

Allowing for different testing regimes and attributions of the cause of death, according to ourworldindata.org, Sweden’s daily confirmed Covid-19 deaths per million inhabitants, on a rolling 7-day average, stood at 4.68 on Tuesday, higher than the total for the U.K. (at 4.46) and the U.S. (at 3.40) as well as Russia and Brazil, which have the largest numbers of coronavirus cases in the world.

Nervous neighbors

Given the data, it’s perhaps not surprising that Sweden’s neighbors are cautious about the reopening of borders and lifting of travel restrictions, although essential travel, such as travel for work, has continued between the countries throughout lockdown, albeit at a lower level. 

Norway and Finland are set to decide on the lifting of travel restrictions on or by June 14.  Finland is not commenting on other countries’ strategies, the Foreign Ministry told CNBC when asked for comment, but pointed to Finland’s explicit strategy to prevent the spread of the virus in the country and told CNBC “it is monitoring the corona situation very carefully and is ready to react quickly if the situation suddenly gets worse.”

Norway directed CNBC’s request for comment to its Ministry of Justice, where no one was immediately available for comment. Meanwhile, Denmark’s Foreign Ministry told CNBC that, as of Monday, the country was “expanding the possibility for travelers from the Nordic countries and Germany to enter into Denmark.”

“It will be possible for residents from these countries to travel into Denmark if they have a worthy purpose for entering, which can now also include (visiting) grandparents, grandchildren, partners, ownership of a vacation residence in Denmark or if they are undertaking business travel to Denmark,” the ministry said in a statement to CNBC. On May 29, the Danish government will present a plan for a controlled and gradual revision of the temporary border controls and travel advice for the summer period, the ministry added.

Like its neighbors, Denmark was tight-lipped on its neighbor Sweden, saying: “Unfortunately, we can’t comment further on the situation in Sweden.” Sweden itself has told its citizens not to travel abroad until July 15 unless absolutely essential.

Defense of the strategy

With global attention on Stockholm’s approach, Sweden’s Linde defended the country’s more laissez-faire approach, which has been led by its Public Health Agency and chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell.

“Transmission is slowing down, the treatment of COVID-19 patients in intensive care is decreasing significantly, and the rising death toll curve has been flattened,” Linde told reporters, insisting that while “there is no full lockdown of Sweden … many parts of the Swedish society have shut down.”

Tegnell has defended his strategy too, telling CNBC on April 22 that Stockholm was heading toward herd immunity “within weeks,” although an official study released last week showed that only 7.3% of Stockholm’s inhabitants had developed Covid-19 antibodies by the end of April.

The country’s former chief epidemiologist, Annika Linde, who oversaw Sweden’s response to swine flu and the Sars epidemic, said earlier this week that the country’s approach to the epidemic, one aiming at herd immunity, had been mistaken.

“I think that we needed more time for preparedness. If we had shut down very early … we would have been able, during that time, to make sure that we had what was necessary to protect the vulnerable,” Linde told Britain’s The Observer newspaper on Sunday.

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