COVID-19: Sweden keeps soft approach, but critics rise

While most of Europe is locked down in a bid to curb the spread of COVID-19, Sweden is keeping primary schools, restaurants and bars open and encouraging people to go outside for a nip of air, news wires reported. The country's soft approach, in stark contrast to the urgent tone elsewhere, has sparked heated debate whether Sweden is doing the right thing.

For many, life is carrying on close to normal. Bars and restaurants were full at the weekend, and Stockholm's city buses have been jam-packed at rush hour despite social distancing recommendations. Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, in a televised speech on Sunday, urged people to "take responsibility" and follow the government's recommendations.

Those include working from home if you can, staying home if you feel sick, practice social distancing, and stay home if you belong to a risk group or are over the age of 70. Gatherings of more than 500 people have been banned, compared to more than two people in Britain and Germany. The government has advised secondary schools and universities to close their facilities and conduct classes online.

On Monday, Sweden's former state epidemiologist and current advisor to the World Health Organization (WHO), Johan Giesecke, encouraged Swedes to go out and enjoy the spring sun, AFP reported. "Bring a friend and walk a metre apart. Don't hug your neighbour. Bring a thermos and sit on a park bench. It's bad for your health to sit at home too," Giesecke told broadcaster SVT's morning show.

Sweden's parliament has so far simply fast-tracked a bill allowing for the closure of primary and pre-schools, if deemed necessary. However, in line with the rest with the rest of the EU, Sweden has shut its borders to non-necessary travel.

Grilled by media about their relaxed response to the pandemic, Swedish politicians respond that the government will take its cue from experts at the country's Public Health Agency. But not everybody shares the government's faith in the agency, with some accusing it of putting lives at risk. This has led to a stream of vitriol on social media directed at the agency.

Amid critics about insufficient restrictions, Sweden's Public Health Agency is set to introduce from tomorrow new measures for restaurants, bars, night clubs and cafes, allowing only table service. Concerns have also been raised of domestic tourists travelling to ski resorts and spreading the virus, prompting many ski resorts to halt apres-ski events. After meeting regional health authorities in Jamtland, which is home to the popular ski town Are, the Public Health Agency decided not to close slopes.

On Monday, Sweden reported 2,016 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, while Norway and Denmark -- which each have around half the population of Sweden -- reported 2,371 and 1,450 cases, respectively. All Scandinavian countries are however believed to have a big number of unknown cases as testing is only being done on patients with severe symptoms.

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