Stortorget square in central Stockholm, Sweden on December 4
Sweden has been the only country in Europe to resist a formal lockdown in both the first and second waves of Covid-19 © Jonas Gratzer/Getty

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Sweden announced its toughest measures yet against coronavirus, including its first recommendation to use face masks, as its death toll continued to increase.

Prime minister Stefan Lofven announced on Friday evening a range of new restrictions from Christmas Eve, including a recommendation to wear face masks on public transport in rush hour. He also said that higher secondary schools and many municipal services would be closed for a month, while entrance to shops, shopping centres and gyms would be restricted.

“This year, Christmas has to be different. The situation is still serious . . . The situation in hospitals is very strained,” Mr Lofven told a press conference.

Sweden has been the only country in Europe to resist a formal lockdown in both the first and second waves, but its latest measures move it closer to having introduced a de facto closure of large parts of its society.

Other measures announced on Friday included restricting the size of groups meeting in restaurants and bars to four people, while the serving of alcohol is prohibited after 8pm. Non-essential workers should work at home for a month, the prime minister said.

Mr Lofven also warned that if shopping centres, stores and fitness gyms ignored the maximum limit on people allowed in, then they would be closed down.

Passengers wait for a metro train at T-centralen station in Stockholm, Sweden, on December 4
Sweden’s unique approach to Covid-19 has received extensive international attention © Jonas Gratzer/Getty

Asked by the Financial Times if these measures were too little, too late, Mr Lofven said Sweden was sticking to its strategy of taking “the right decisions at the proper time”.

He added: “You must also consider that a very serious lockdown wouldn’t have an effect in the long run because people would not put up with that . . . Locking down a society is also a burden on the population.”

Sweden had also long resisted issuing a recommendation to wear face masks outside hospitals, with health authorities arguing that it could stop people keeping a distance from each other. “We do not believe that it will have a very decisive effect but it can have a positive effect on public transport at certain times,” said Johan Carlson, head of the public health agency.

Sweden’s unique approach compared with the rest of Europe has received extensive international attention and this week criticism from an unusual domestic source: King Carl XVI Gustaf said the country had “failed”.

That followed a damning interim report from Sweden’s independent commission investigating its handling of coronavirus. That said the country had failed to protect its elderly population and blamed it on both the current centre-left government and previous administrations.

Mr Lofven said “the king expressed what we all feel” about the high number of deaths, but that attributing responsibility for that was difficult.

Sweden was caught unaware by the strength of the second wave after state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell repeatedly said in spring and summer that it would be spared compared with neighbours such as Finland and Norway.

Sweden has had about 1,700 deaths in the past month compared with about 100 each for Finland and Norway, each of which has half of its population.

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