Sweden has become an international outlier in its response to the deadly coronavirus outbreak: many schools and offices remain open, and the capital’s commuter trains are packed. ‘It is a huge experiment.
Since the UK went into lockdown on Monday evening, Sweden is the largest European country with the fewest limits on where people can go and what they can do. Schools for children up to the age of 16 remain open, many people continue to go to work and packed commuter trains and buses were reported this week in the capital, Stockholm. “Clearly, Sweden stands out at the moment,” said Carl Bildt, the former prime minister.
Swedish authorities have banned public gatherings of more than 500 people, closed universities and higher education colleges, and advised workers to stay at home if possible. Authorities on Tuesday ordered restaurants and bars only to serve people at tables rather than at the bar.
But he conceded that the 90,000 figure for the number of people who die annually in Sweden would “increase significantly” if its healthcare system became overburdened.
There have been just over 2,000 reported Covid-19 cases in Sweden and 33 deaths. That compares with more than 6,000 deaths in Italy, Europe’s worst-affected country.
“The future still looks manageable,” said Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist who has become one of the public faces of the outbreak. He argued that schools needed to stay open to provide childcare for health workers, noting that young people appeared to have much lower infection rates.
But a significant number of Swedish health experts disagree. Mr Tegnell has faced a barrage of criticism after details of the country’s antivirus tactics leaked to Swedish TV at the weekend.
Joacim Rocklov, an epidemiologist at Umea University, said the Swedish authorities were taking huge risks with public health when so much remained unknown about coronavirus.
“I do not see why Sweden would be so different from other countries. It is a huge experiment,” he told the Financial Times. “We have no idea — it could work out. But it could also go crazily in the wrong direction.”
Swedish authorities have said they are not explicitly pursuing a strategy of “herd immunity”, where a large segment of the population contracts the virus in order for society to build up immunity. The UK’s chief scientific adviser had previously suggested that Britain adopt such an approach before the government backtracked.
Sweden is instead seeking to slow the spread of infections and ensure that its health system does not become overwhelmed. Mr Bildt said the situation on the streets of Stockholm had changed “dramatically” in recent weeks despite the absence of legal restrictions, with far fewer people going outside.
But Mr Rocklov said it was not yet known how long immunity to Covid-19 would last. “There is a big risk that Sweden would have to go into quarantine when the health system goes into crisis,” he added.
Sweden’s relaxed approach contrasts with its Nordic neighbours. Denmark, Norway and Finland have closed schools, sealed their borders and imposed other restrictions.
Stefan Lofven, Sweden’s centre-left prime minister, has called on everyone to play a part in stopping the virus from spreading by, for instance, not visiting elderly relatives and working from home. He used a televised address to the nation on Sunday to warn that more restrictive measures might come as he conceded the next few months would be difficult.
“There are a few crucial moments in life when you have to make sacrifices, not only for your own sake but also in order to take responsibility for the people around you, for your fellow human beings, and for our country. That moment is now. That day is here. And that duty belongs to everyone,” he said.
Sweden’s strategy has also been criticised for a different reason, with some arguing that even the lighter measures could cause huge damage to the economy. Kerstin Hessius, a prominent fund manager, is one of those arguing that the country may be swapping one disaster for an even worse one.
The National Crime Agency today warned that organised crime groups may try to exploit the coronavirus outbreak to target the UK.
Despite the unprecedented situation with the pandemic, the NCA is continuing to protect the public and leading the UK’s fight to cut serious and organised crime throughout this difficult time.
Steve Rodhouse, NCA Director General (operations), said:
“Our mission in leading the fight against serious and organized crime has never been more important, and our work continues.
“We recognise that the Covid-19 outbreak may provide opportunities for criminals, and we are monitoring intelligence and crime trends to ensure that we, and the whole law enforcement system, can react as needed.”
NCA intelligence assessments have identified a number of issues that criminals are already looking to exploit.
Cyber-crime investigators have seen instances of coronavirus-themed malicious apps and websites, as well as email phishing attacks aimed at stealing personal and financial information.
The NCA’s National Cyber Crime Unit is advising people to be extra vigilant when seeking out online information relating to the pandemic and to ensure they are following online safety advice which can be found on the National Cyber Security Centre website.
The City of London Police have issued an alert regarding fraudsters using the outbreak to facilitate fraud and cyber-crime. Reported cases include criminals posing as health officials in an attempt to get victims to disclose personal information.
There have also been cases of criminal networks exploiting demand for certain coronavirus-related products. One such incident saw a consignment of suspected fake Covid-19 test kits sent from the UK seized by US border officials in Los Angeles. A man was arrested in Sussex by City of London Police attempting to send 60 more fake treatment kits to France, the US, and other parts of the UK, and has since been charged.
The NCA is continuing its work to protect children from abuse and exploitation online. A man from Darlington was sentenced on Monday for making more than 45,000 abuse images as a result of an NCA investigation.
As schools close, the agency is increasing its work with partners to bolster child safeguarding and online safety education. There is a risk of increased offending as people spend more time online and indoors, and the NCA is appealing to parents and carers to visit the Thinkuknow educational website for advice about keeping children and young people safe.
While travel restrictions are impacting the levels of traffic passing through the UK border, only this week a seizure of half-a-tonne of cocaine was made by Border Force at Dover, leading NCA officers to charge a man with attempted importation. A man from Blackpool was also charged by the NCA after the recovery of firearms and ammunition at the Channel ports.
And criminal groups involved in people smuggling have continued to try and evade border controls using small boats, with NCA intelligence suggesting that some OCGs are even telling migrants the UK is safer than the continent in a bid to drive up demand.
Mr Rodhouse, added: “Like all organisations we are having to make some adjustments to how we operate in light of the outbreak, but we are an operational law enforcement organisation responding to a national security threat.
“The NCA is providing services that directly keep the public safe and also allow others across law enforcement to do the same, and these will be maintained throughout the pandemic.
“We are also working closely with law enforcement partners both in the UK and abroad – many of whom a similarly affected – to ensure that our ability to cooperate is maintained, and that we continue to work together to protect the public.
“And I would ask the public to remain vigilant during this difficult time and report anything they think might be suspicious.”
Britain and the European Union have exchanged draft legal texts containing their proposals for how relations between the two sides should work after the end of a Brexit transition period on 31 December, a British government spokesman said on Wednesday (18 March).
Britain formally left the bloc on 31 January, but under the terms of an exit agreement most practical aspects of how Britain interacts with the 27 EU member states have remained unchanged.
“This evening the UK and EU have exchanged draft legal texts. We are sharing ours in confidence as a negotiating document, as part of the ongoing negotiating process,” the British government spokesman said.
“Teams will now analyse each other’s texts and we expect further conversations between the teams next week.”
The drafts include a proposed free trade agreement and key annexes, and proposed agreements on aviation safety, air transport and civil nuclear industrieThe coronavirus crisis has raised doubts about whether it was still realistic for the two sides to reach agreement before the 31 December deadline, which was already considered an ambitious goal before the crisis struck.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said earlier that Brexit was not being discussed much in his Downing Street office at the moment, given the demands of the response to the coronavirus crisis, but he had no intention of moving the deadline.