Sweden’s public health agency has made another policy U-turn, bowing to critics who have argued it has underestimated the potential for asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19.
The agency said on Tuesday that it recommended children who live with somebody infected by coronavirus to stay at home, contrary to previous advice that they should go to school or nursery.
It follows a previous reversal in October that led to a recommendation that adults who live with an infected person should receive instructions from a doctor, including possibly seven days of quarantine rather than go to work as normal.
Sweden’s unique Covid-19 strategy has drawn much attention for its lack of a formal lockdown in the first and second waves of the pandemic, the only EU country not to do so. But epidemiologists and other experts say that Sweden stands out in other ways too, including quarantine rules that are far less restrictive than almost any other European country and no recommendations to wear face masks.
Joacim Rocklov, an epidemiologist at the Umea university and critic of Sweden’s approach, said the country had suffered a “systemic failure”, in large part due to it underplaying the risks of asymptomatic transmission. “There’s been no testing of asymptomatic people, not even those returning from holidays abroad. It’s a mistake.”
Sweden’s health authorities have long been dismissive of people without symptoms being important to the spread of Covid-19. Its testing and contact-tracing capabilities have lagged behind its Nordic neighbours with tests still reserved almost exclusively for those with symptoms. By contrast, other European countries have urged close contacts of infected people — even those without symptoms — to be tested to help detect any asymptomatic cases.
State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell as recently as last week dismissed the idea that keeping children home from school if one parent was infected would help control the disease’s spread.
Mr Tegnell insisted on Tuesday that the public health agency had not changed its views on the relative unimportance of asymptomatic transmission. He argued the measure to keep children at home had nothing to do with asymptomatic cases, but was instead taken to make sure that schools could still function due to the amount of work teachers needed to do to welcome students from infected households. “Rather little” was his answer to how much impact it would have on infections.
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Sweden’s strategy has been increasingly controversial at home and abroad after authorities’ repeated statements that it would suffer less from a second wave of Covid-19 in the autumn and winter than its Nordic neighbours has proved to be wrong.
Sweden has reported 517 deaths with Covid-19 in the two weeks until Friday, whereas neighbour Norway — with half the population — has had 328 in the pandemic as a whole. Sweden has had 6,681 deaths in total, giving it one of the highest per capita death rates in Europe.
Mr Rocklov said it increasingly looked like Sweden was altering its strategy. “They are changing slowly and almost secretly . . . People are realising that it has been dangerous guesswork over the second wave being less severe. It’s starting to change public opinion.”
Sweden’s centre-left government has taken a more prominent stance in the fight against Covid-19 in recent weeks, leading political experts to sense a split with the powerful public health agency over its approach.
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