The Swedish government has moved to sharply reduce the size of public gatherings, as it sought to come to grips with a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic that has seen record daily numbers of new cases and growing pressure on hospitals.
Swedes have not been adhering to coronavirus recommendations and public gatherings will now be limited from a previous upper threshold of 300 to eight people, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said at a news conference on Monday.
The new measure will take effect on November 24. Interior Minister Mikael Damberg said the new limit on gatherings – far lower than the 50 allowed during the earlier outbreak – would be in place for four weeks but could be extended to run over the Christmas and New Year holidays.
Too many people were acting as “if the danger is over”, he added.
For his part, Lofven sounded an ominous note on the importance of limiting social contacts.
“It’s going to get worse. Do your duty and take responsibility for stopping the spread of the virus,” he appealed to Swedes.
“This is the new norm for the entire society,” he said. “Don’t go to gyms, don’t go to libraries, don’t host dinners. Cancel.”
The new ban only applies to public gatherings such as sporting and cultural events, as the government does not have the authority to ban private gatherings in homes.
Schools and restaurants will stay open, for example, though the latter have already been limited to a maximum of eight people per table.
Swedes have also been advised not to socialise with anyone outside their household.
The resurgence of the disease hit Sweden weeks later than much of continental Europe, but the number of new infections has picked up speed since the turn of the month, with rising admissions to intensive care units and general COVID-19 wards.
The daily death toll from the disease has also climbed after having slowed to single digits during an extended summer lull, when many Swedes gradually began to live their lives more normally.
Sweden has gained international attention for its unorthodox response to the pandemic, shunning lockdowns and widespread use of face masks and instead relying on mainly voluntary measures even as the pandemic hit the country increasingly hard.
More than 6,000 people with COVID-19 have died in the country since the pandemic began, a death rate per capita several times higher than that of its Nordic neighbours, if somewhat lower than some larger European countries such as Spain.
On Friday, the last day for which national data is available, Sweden reported a daily record of 5,990 cases, bringing its overall total to 177,355 cases since the start of the pandemic and 6,164 deaths.
“We don’t believe in a total lockdown,” Lofven said. “We believe that the measures we have taken … are appropriate.”
The Swedish government said last week that it would impose a nationwide 10pm ban on the sale of alcohol in bars, restaurants and night clubs as of November 20.