STOCKHOLM (Reuters) -Sweden will urge all employees to work from home if possible and impose tighter rules for social distancing, the government said on Tuesday, as it ratchets up restrictions to fight a surge in new infections and the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus.
The number of new virus cases in Sweden, which sparked international attention last year for its rejection of hard lockdowns, have shot up in recent weeks after a calm autumn when most restrictions were phased out.
Hospitalizations and intensive care cases are still among the lowest per capita in Europe, but have also begun rising.
“The pace of new infections is rising fast and we are seeing more pressure on the healthcare system,” Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson told a news conference. “The spread of the new virus variant – Omicron – is worrying.”
Sweden saw 12,681 new cases and 11 deaths in the period from Saturday to Monday, the Public Health Agency said. It expects the pace of new infections to increase in the coming weeks, mainly due to the more easily-transmitted Omicron variant.
The peak, which is expected in mid-January, could be as high as 15,000 new cases per day if the Agency’s worst-case scenario proves correct. That would be the highest daily number since the start of the pandemic in early 2020.
The latest restrictions – the second stage of the government’s plans – includes a limit of 50 people at private gatherings and the need for a vaccination pass for public events where there are more than 500 people.
Bars and restaurants will only be able to serve seated guests while the public will also have to be seated at larger events – like football matches. Shops will have to limit the number of customers to prevent crowding.
Earlier this month, the government reintroduced some limited measures, such as the use of masks on public transport. It has warned that further measures may be needed if the situation deteriorates.
(Reporting by Simon Johnson and Niklas Pollard, Editing by William Maclean)