Carl XVI Gustaf
Carl XVI Gustaf: ‘I think we have failed. We have a large number who have died and that is terrible. It is something we all have to suffer with’ © Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty

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Sweden’s king has admitted that the Scandinavian country has failed with its coronavirus strategy, which has left it with a far higher death toll from the pandemic than its Nordic neighbours.

Carl XVI Gustaf told Swedes in his annual Christmas address that the country had suffered “enormously in difficult conditions” and that it was “traumatic” that many relatives of the almost 8,000 people to die with Covid-19 had not been able to say goodbye to them.

“I think we have failed. We have a large number who have died and that is terrible. It is something we all have to suffer with,” the king added, in comments released on Thursday and due to be broadcast in full on Monday.

Sweden’s light-touch Covid-19 strategy with no formal lockdown, no recommendations to use face masks, and weaker quarantine rules than elsewhere in Europe has been the subject of intense international debate. Many opponents of lockdowns have cited Sweden and its ability to keep its schools and economy open.

But domestic support for Sweden’s strategy has fallen in recent months as the country has been hard hit by the second wave of Covid-19. State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell argued throughout the spring and summer that Sweden would be spared compared with neighbouring Finland and Norway because of higher immunity provided by the first wave.

The opposite has transpired: Sweden has reported about 1,700 Covid deaths in the past month compared with about 100 each in Finland and Norway, each of which have half Sweden’s population.

An opinion poll for newspaper Dagens Nyheter on Thursday showed support for Sweden’s public health agency and Mr Tegnell continued to slide but remained at higher levels than other countries had for their officials. The proportion of Swedes that had strong faith in the agency fell 7 percentage points to 52 per cent while Mr Tegnell’s support slipped 6 percentage points to 59 per cent.

Mr Tegnell declined to comment on the king’s statement.

Asked by the Financial Times if he should have done more to reduce the spread of the virus in Sweden, Mr Tegnell said that many countries with strict lockdowns had had high infection rates, and that the situation was “very complicated”. 

He added: “In Sweden we do the same as all other countries: we do our best to keep the spread as low as possible. We can see countries using a lot of different measures, and we cannot see any clear correlation between measures and the stop of the spread.”

Sweden’s Covid strategy also received scathing criticism this week from the initial findings of the independent commission looking into how the country handled the pandemic. Its report said current and previous Swedish governments bore the main responsibility for the Scandinavian country’s failure to protect its elderly people.

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Asked if he was afraid of getting coronavirus, the 74-year-old king said: “Lately, it has felt more noticeable. It has crept closer and closer. That’s not what you want.”

Sweden’s capital Stockholm and some other regions are close to running out of intensive care beds, prompting authorities to trigger a national escalation plan while both Finland and Norway have offered medical assistance. The government is also working on a temporary law to give it greater authority to order closures, but it is not likely to come into power until mid-March.

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