By Johan Ahlander and Niklas Pollard
STOCKHOLM (Reuters) -Sweden’s response to the spread of coronavirus was too slow and preparations to handle a pandemic were insufficient, a commission investigating the country’s response to COVID-19 said on Friday.
Sweden’s strategy, shunning lockdowns and measures such as widespread use of face masks and only gradually tightening curbs, made the country an outlier in the first year of the pandemic when many countries across Europe chose to implement far tougher restrictions.
The country kept most schools, businesses, bars and restaurants open in startling contrast with a locked-down Europe, relying on voluntary recommendations even as its death toll rapidly eclipsed those if its Nordic neighbours.
Meanwhile, mass testing for the virus and contact tracing only got underway after a first wave which killed over two thousand people in the nation’s nursing homes had all but petered out.
The commission said it would address Sweden’s no-lockdown strategy in its final report, but that its preliminary findings showed that measures were introduced late both in relation to the country’s Nordic neighbours and the spread of the virus in Sweden during the spring of 2020.
“Sweden’s handling of the pandemic has been marked by a slowness of response,” the commission said.
“The initial disease prevention and control measures were insufficient to stop or even substantially limit the spread of the virus in the country.”
The commission, appointed by the government amid pressure from parliament, also noted that it had taken “far too long” to build sufficient testing capacity with initially only targeted groups, such as healthcare staff, being tested.
Health Minister Lena Hallengren told Reuters she would wait for the final report before assessing the overall handling, but said that there were things that could have been done better.
“We have started work in many areas, such as preparing a new communicable diseases act. We are, of course, trying to learn in many areas from this crisis,” she said.
Authorities relied heavily on exhorting people to socially distance and wash their hands, with the government leaving much responsibility for fighting the virus with the health agency and its chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell.
Mass testing took months to get up and running amid discussions over responsibility and funding, a delay the commission labelled “a complete failure”, while it noted the health agency had adopted some tougher measures during the second wave which it had rejected during the first, likely sowing confusion and undermining compliance.
Sweden has recorded more than 15,000 deaths from coronavirus, many times the per capita level of its Nordic neighbours that implemented tougher restrictions, but still lower than in most European countries that locked down tightly, such as Britain.
Its pandemic strategy has been controversial at home and abroad. Critics have called it reckless and cruel but the approach has also earned praise for being more sustainable and business-friendly and as a model for living with the virus as it becomes endemic.
Restrictions were gradually tightened in later waves of the pandemic before Sweden, along with other Western countries, began abandoning curbs following the rollout of vaccines. Nearly all restrictions have now been lifted.
The commission investigating the coronavirus response has no legal power beyond making public its findings with the aim of improving Sweden’s ability to handle pandemics and similar situations.
(Reporting by Niklas Pollard and Johan AhlanderEditing by Anna Ringstrom, Frances Kerry and Toby Chopra)