Sweden will make face masks mandatory for public transport, the country’s prime minister announced, in a major U-turn that defies advice from virus expert Anders Tegnell who has argued that they don’t work.
Stefan Lofven announced the move in a press conference on Friday amid a series of new measures that will go into effect in lock-free Sweden on December 24th, including new home orders, distance learning for some students and a ban on alcohol sales after 8pm and new capacity restrictions for restaurants and shops.
The move takes place one day after King Carl XVI. Gustaf Tegnell had issued an unusual public reprimand. He said the country’s coronavirus strategy “failed” and people had “suffered tremendously”.
It also comes just hours after Tegnell ditched the use of face masks by Swedish media and told people to look at what has happened in countries with face mask policies to see if they are effective or not.
Sweden has become one of the hardest hit countries in Europe with 63 infections per 1,000 inhabitants. Only a handful of countries have higher rates – including Lithuania, Croatia, and Slovenia.
The Stockholm hospitals have also warned in the last few days about intensive care beds, which are now more than 90 percent occupied, and fear that doctors will soon have to decide which patients should be treated.
The European heads of state and government are rushing to introduce further Covid restrictions before the Christmas holidays, as a third wave of infections is feared in January. Italy is considering restricting gatherings to just two guests.
Switzerland came one step closer to a complete lockdown on Friday and ordered that restaurants should be closed from Tuesday, along with indoor sports and leisure facilities. People are encouraged to stay at home.
Sweden currently suffers from an average of more than 6,000 coronavirus cases per day and has registered almost 370,000 cases in total, well above neighboring Denmark (128,000 cases), Norway (43,000) and Finland (32,000).
Sweden averages more than 70 deaths a day and has a total of 8,000 casualties – a number the King has described as “terrible”.
Coronavirus cases are again increasing sharply across Europe as the strict November lockdowns were relaxed. Sweden, which used the least touch of any major European nation, now also tops the infection charts among major nations – with a rate of 63 cases per 1,000 people according to European CDC data
The government backed away from its “middle ground” approach to avoiding business-crippling consequences, acknowledging that immediate and decisive action was crucial to curb persistently high coronavirus infection rates.
The cabinet urged the public to keep social contacts to a minimum and avoid unnecessary travel, and warned against taking further action should the situation worsen.
The government shied away from taking the controversial decision to close the ski slopes in the alpine country and instead left that to local governments.
Lucerne and Schwyz then announced that their slopes will be closed, while Bern will keep its resorts open for the time being.
Elsewhere, Jean-François Delfraissy, head of France’s National Advisory Ethics Committee, warned that life is unlikely to return to normal by autumn 2021, even if vaccines are introduced.
Delfraissy said a day after President Emmanuel Macron tested positive that it will take at least the second half of next year to get enough vaccines to protect the elderly and vulnerable – and that further action will need to be taken by then.
Johan Carlson, head of the Swedish health department, spoke on Friday about the new face cover requirement, saying authorities “have never been against” making masks mandatory.
“We don’t think this will be very critical, but it can have a positive impact on public transportation at certain times,” said Carlson.
He added that they “can be useful in certain environments where you cannot keep your distance”.
Sweden isn’t the only country hit by a second virus wave, with Germany –Praised for its early response to the pandemic – 33,777 new cases were reported on Friday, the highest number since mid-April.
The country also recorded 813 deaths, it’s the second highest single-day total number of pandemics and is well above the first wave peak of 315.
German leaders have now been accused of wasting the profits made during the first wave when they outvoted Angela Merkel during a crunch lockdown meeting in late October.
Instead of plunging the country back into strict restrictions, they instead opted for a lockdown-lite approach, which Der Spiegel magazine described as “the biggest political misjudgment of the year”.
Germany was forced into a strict lockdown again this week as hospitals were overcrowded with coronavirus patients and restrictions were in place during the Christmas holidays.
The country is far from the only country to tighten restrictions on vacation after reversing an earlier decision to relax them.
Italian politicians will make a decision on their Christmas restrictions today. The two main plans are to plunge the whole country into strict measures by January – or to leave a small window open between December 28 and 30 to socialize.
Sweden will make face masks mandatory for public transport at peak times starting January 7, despite virus expert Anders Tegnell (left) who has argued they don’t work (right, PM Stefan Lofven, who announced the move today).
The Swedish King Carl XVI. Gustaf, pictured with wife Queen Silvia, spoke during a Christmas television special, claiming the country’s coronavirus approach “failed” and people “suffered tremendously”.
Fatalities are also increasing across Europe, with the Czech Republic, Sweden and Germany among the countries where tolls are rising the fastest – with the toll in Germany now well above the peak of the first wave
According to the plans, each household can invite a maximum of two guests from another household, provided they are “immediate” family members such as grandparents or children.
In Spain, travel between regions was banned over the holidays, with gatherings limited to a maximum of ten people from two households until January 11. Bars and restaurants are only allowed to be open for four hours a day in two time slots – once in the morning and again in the afternoon.
Spanish health minister Salvador Illa has warned people must be careful about celebrating the holidays, saying, “We could be at the beginning of the third wave if the appropriate measures are not taken”.
In France, where President Emmanuel Macron tested positive for the virus on Thursday, top medical doctor Jean-François Delfraissy warned that normal life would not return until the fall of 2021 as the country headed for a holiday season under severe coronavirus conditions.
During the holiday season, the country is closed below 8 p.m. until 6 a.m., with the exception of Christmas Eve. Meetings are limited to a maximum of six people indoors.
Restaurants, bars and cafes as well as ski areas, museums, theaters and cinemas are closed at least until January.
The Netherlands, which was one of the hardest hit nations during the second wave, has again imposed strict lockdowns this week, which are expected to last until at least January.
In the Czech Republic, which was also heavily affected during the second wave, stricter rules apply from today, as restaurants, hotels and indoor sports facilities are closed and gatherings are limited to a maximum of six.
Ireland and Switzerland have also announced that they will review their own restrictions. Ministers in Dublin are considering a swift return to full lockdown once Christmas is over.
Health experts have advised the government to put restrictions on home visits and the hospitality sector beginning December 28 to prevent the infection from getting out of hand.
In the meantime, Switzerland will impose new restrictions starting Tuesday next week, but the exact measures are still being decided.
Health Minister Alain Berset is believed to be pushing for restaurants, leisure and sports businesses to close completely from Tuesday.
People with face masks gather around a Christmas tree in the Swiss city of Lausanne as the country is set to announce hard curbs starting Tuesday next week to help control the spread of the virus