Helsinki-Vantaa airport in Vantaa, Finland. The country has the strictest criteria in Europe for visitors from abroad to avoid quarantine © Roni Rekomaa/Lehtikuva/AFP/Getty

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Sweden may have hogged the international headlines over its handling of Covid-19, but its Nordic neighbour to the east may be just as interesting.

Finland has had 90 per cent fewer coronavirus deaths per capita than Sweden and its economy contracted by less in the first half of 2020 as well. Even now as the rest of Europe frets about a big surge in cases, Finland has one of the lowest infection rates on the continent, although it has ticked up in the past two weeks.

Experts said Finland’s approach — and the similar one of Denmark and Norway — of shutting down rapidly but not totally to get the pandemic under control, and then reopening after a couple of months has been one of the most successful in Europe in this early stage of coronavirus.

“The shutdown was never absolute and we also opened relatively quickly for the summer — this may explain the effect on the economy which was less severe,” said Mika Salminen, director of health security at THL, the Finnish expert agency on health.

He added that whereas Sweden seemed to take a “more strictly utilitarian” approach with a different tolerance for risk, Finland’s constitution strongly emphasises “the protection of life and health very high among the responsibilities of government”.

One big distinction between Finland and all other European countries is its focus on preparedness and how to act in national emergencies, born out of its collective experience during the Winter War in 1939-40 against the Soviet Union. Its law on preparedness explicitly mentions pandemics and was triggered for the first time since the second world war while its emergency stockpiles of medical and protective equipment were the envy of the continent amid shortages elsewhere.

Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist who reviewed the preparedness in Finland several years ago, said: “Their level of preparedness is just way beyond anything we would even dream about in Sweden. But, of course, if you have a neighbour like Russia and you’ve fought wars with them forever . . . ”

Mr Salminen said the preparedness had both a “practical and psychological” effect.

Finland’s Covid-19 response has protected its economy and citizens. Scatterplot showing Fall in H1 GDP v Cumulative deaths per million, Sep 21 2020

Pekka Nuorti, professor of epidemiology at Tampere University, said it went beyond that. “Finland has a long tradition of responding to crises and people tend to come together when there is a crisis. What was remarkable when the restrictions were implemented was the changes in population behaviour,” he added, pointing to a three-quarters reduction in social contact among people.

He added: “A pandemic is really a mirror of a whole society’s functioning and organisation as a whole.”

Finns are cautious about declaring their approach successful, given the potential for a second wave in the coming months. Its cases per capita are at their highest level since mid-May and have tripled in the past two weeks, but are still only at 10 new infections per million people compared with more than 50 in the UK and Denmark.

Experts say Finland was helped by its position on the periphery of Europe. It was also affected later than some European countries, meaning its lockdown in mid-March in hindsight came at the correct time helping stop the spread of the virus.

Finland’s rate of new cases remains below its Nordic neighbours and the EU

But Johan Strang, associate professor in Nordic studies at the University of Helsinki, said the Finnish approach still was noteworthy with clear communication from the centre-left government of prime minister Sanna Marin and other authorities across the country. “They were calm, in the sense that they can implement quite drastic measures without anybody questioning them. Finland was better prepared for this than Sweden,” he said.

One drastic measure was when the region including the capital Helsinki was closed, stopping people going in or out of its borders for several weeks. It also has the strictest criteria in Europe for visitors from abroad to avoid quarantine. But otherwise Finland’s lockdown — in keeping with Norway and Denmark — was less severe than much of Europe with shops and public transport remaining open and no curfews.

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Finland appears to have used that lockdown wisely, building up its capacity for testing as well as contact tracing. Mr Salminen pointed to a big increase in staff dealing with contact tracing as well as an app that has been downloaded by 2.1m people out of a population of 5.5m.

“We hope these measures together with limited local and regional restrictions as well as increased use of masks will diminish the second wave,” he added.

Like elsewhere in Europe, infections have risen recently most in younger people, which Prof Nuorti classified as good news as they got seriously ill less frequently but bad news as they tend to have more social contacts than elderly people and Covid-19 appeared to find its way to vulnerable populations.

Still, he said Finland’s approach had worked so far, providing “evidence that the lockdown restrictions do work”. But he added: “Of course, we can’t keep society closed forever. That is what we are balancing right now — how do you keep society functioning as much as possible while keeping the disease under control?”

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