Swedish PM makes Covid-19 plea in historic national address

Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Lofven is the third prime minister in Sweden's history to deliver such a national address. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

STOCKHOLM (BLOOMBERG) - Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Lofven used a rare Sunday (Nov 22) night address to warn of the growing threat the coronavirus poses, amid fears the strategy used so far may not be enough to fight an increasingly deadly pandemic.

Mr Lofven, the third prime minister in Sweden's history to deliver such a national address, said "too many people have been careless about following the recommendations" that health authorities say are key if the virus is to be reined in.

Sweden famously avoided a lockdown, relying instead on voluntary measures. But with a death rate considerably higher than elsewhere in the Nordic region, and intensive care beds rapidly filling up, authorities in the country are now recalibrating their approach.

Mr Lofven's decision to address the nation triggered a wave of analysis in Sweden's biggest newspapers on Monday, as editorial pages weighed in on the seriousness of the moment.

Only two Swedish prime ministers have made similar addresses in the past - Mr Carl Bildt in 1992, after a series of racially motivated shootings, and Mr Goran Persson in 2003, after the murder of Foreign Minister Anna Lindh.

In his Sunday speech, Mr Lofven said "everyone must do more" to fight the virus.

"The health and lives of people are still in danger, and the danger is increasing," he said.

Covid-19 has already killed more than 6,000 Swedes, with total cases well above 200,000. At the same time, intensive care beds are filling up quickly, with twice as many Covid patients as of Nov 19 compared with the preceding fortnight.

In a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Sweden consistently ranked among the hardest hit nations in Europe, as measured by relative Covid mortality and infection rates.

The OECD also noted that Sweden lagged far behind peers in bringing down the transmission rate, as defined by Rt.

"The objective of prevention interventions, including containment and mitigation strategies, is...to bring the value of Rt to below one, that is, when the number of infected persons will decrease over time. On average, it took 34 days for countries to bring this indicator to below one after the epidemic started spreading in the country. The country with the shortest period was Malta (11 days), with Sweden reporting the longest period (58 days)," the OECD said.

But Interior Minister Mikael Damberg said it's still too early to draw conclusions about the Swedish strategy.

"We see that large parts of Europe have been hit by the second wave," Damberg said in an interview with public broadcaster SVT. "Our responsibility now is that Sweden is not drawn into a situation as serious as the other countries'."

The government, however, appears to be acknowledging that measures to date have been inadequate.

Earlier this month, Sweden's prime minister took what he called the "unprecedented" step of banning public gatherings of more than eight people. From Nov 20, sales of alcohol were no longer permitted after 10 pm. Both measures were a sign that voluntary measures are no longer enough.

The message from the prime minister was similarly unequivocal on Sunday night: the respite from Covid-19 during the summer and the fall is over.

"Everything that you would like to do but that isn't necessary, call it off, cancel, postpone," he said.

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