Yesterday I pointed out that this has been a tough week for Swedish officials attempting to guide the country through the coronavirus crisis. After suggesting the curve was flattening last week, they were hit with two days in a row of the highest ever jumps in the number of deaths (185 on Tuesday and 172 on Wednesday). In addition, Thursday saw a big jump in the number of new cases (751). Today the news was even worse:
Sweden has reported a record number of new coronavirus infections for the second day in a row – just as the country threatens to close bars and restaurants that do not follow social distancing measures.
Sweden posted a record 812 new Covid-19 cases today, adding 61 to the record 751 tally it reached the day before.
Major Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet declared ‘the corona curve is going in the wrong direction’ after the numbers were announced.
Likely because it has been such a bad week, some Swedish officials are now threatening to do the thing Sweden has thus far resisted doing: Shut down bars and restaurants:
Home Affairs Minister Mikael Damberg said there were worrying signs that as the weather got warmer, people in the capital were beginning to ignore social-distancing rules.
“As the sun begins to shine, we are beginning to see some worrying reports of open-air restaurants full of customers, of places packed with people, and we have to take this seriously,” Damberg told a news conference.
“I don’t want to see any full open-air restaurants in Stockholm or anywhere else. Otherwise, businesses will be closed.”
He said this would apply to bars and restaurant around the country, not just Stockholm.
Bloomberg reports the mayor of Stockholm made a similar threat:
Authorities in Stockholm inspected 200 restaurants in the past two weeks, and have since expanded their vigil to ensure people are practicing social distancing. The city’s mayor warned that establishments caught in breach of guidelines will be shut.
“In the past week, we have received reports that people in Stockholm are starting to relax and enjoy the weather, and I want to be very clear that the restrictions in place are not just general advice,” Stockholm mayor Anna Konig Jerlemyr said at the press conference. “This is a warning to all restaurants that are not taking responsibility — you will be closed down unless you follow restrictions.”
The Swedish approach appears to be on the bubble right now. On the one hand, this week’s surging numbers and the response of authorities shows that they do not have a solid handle on this and can’t necessarily control it with the softer approach. If we see another record-breaking day of deaths or infections, the Swedish approach may start to look more like the rest of Europe. We probably won’t see that this weekend because their numbers seem to drop every weekend as fewer cases get reported.
On the other hand, their approach could still work out. The Swedish approach has been to keep the number of cases below the threshold that hospitals can manage but, while doing that, to make social limits less draconian so the measures could continue for months if necessary without destroying the economy. The other, related goal was to get to herd immunity somewhat more quickly than if they had simply shut everything down completely and slowed the rate of infections to a crawl.
At least so far that bet hasn’t been shown to be a mistake. The hospitals are still managing and the measures seem easier on the economy than a lockdown, though that doesn’t mean the economy will escape unscathed. Today Sweden’s Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson said she expects to see a big drop in annual GDP:
“If were were to do an update of annual GDP today, the judgement is that we would land somewhere in the middle of … -4.2 and -10%,” Andersson told reporters at a news conference. The government gave a base-case and more negative case scenario in its Spring budget on Apri1 15.
The only thing we can do now is wait and see. As I said above, you can expect the numbers to drop this weekend. The real test will come next Tuesday and Wednesday when the numbers usually pick back up to account for cases not reported over the weekend. If the numbers are the same as this week or worse, the Swedish approach will likely change.