Sweden’s per capita coronavirus death rate is one of the highest in Europe © Johan Nilsson/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

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Sweden’s strategy to protect its elderly from coronavirus was a failure and the government in Stockholm bears responsibility, according to preliminary findings of an official inquiry into the country’s handling of the pandemic.

Sweden’s independent coronavirus commission, one of the first in Europe to release publicly parts of its findings, said that well-known structural problems in elderly care contributed to a high number of deaths among pensioners.

“These shortcomings have led to residential care being unprepared and ill-equipped to handle a pandemic. Staff employed in the elderly care sector were largely left by themselves to tackle the crisis . . . Although Sweden, in comparison with other countries, does not stand out with a high share of deaths in residential care, it is nevertheless clear that, so far, this part of the strategy has failed,” the commission said in the first part of its report published on Tuesday.

It added: “The ultimate responsibility for these shortcomings rests with the government in power — and with the previous governments that also possessed this information.”

The scathing report by an inquiry made up primarily of academics and chaired by a former government lawyer makes uncomfortable reading for the centre-left government in Stockholm.

Sweden has taken a different path from the rest of Europe dealing with the pandemic, including by not implementing a formal lockdown or recommending the use of face masks, keeping its borders open, and not imposing quarantines on travellers from abroad.

The commission underscored on Tuesday that Sweden had suffered a similar proportion of deaths among the elderly to other European countries. But its death rate per capita is one of the highest in Europe, and significantly higher than its Nordic neighbours’.

Stefan Lofven, prime minister, admitted to newspaper Aftonbladet on Tuesday that Sweden had been harder hit by the second wave of Covid-19 than the country’s health officials had expected.

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The Swedish commission criticised several factors, including shared responsibility between national and local governments for elderly care; insufficient staffing levels and sometimes poor working conditions; and problems with sending doctors into care homes.

It said it had taken “far too long” to deal with the shortcomings and listed a number of tardy decisions, such as the late introduction of testing and a ban on visitors to elderly homes that was only introduced on April 1, weeks after the outbreak of the pandemic.

“It appears blameworthy that attention was not drawn to the conditions in residential care for consistently frail older people earlier, seeing as it was known that the consequences of infection were particularly severe in this group,” it added.

The commission pointed out that 20 per cent of infected care home residents were not seen by doctors at all, while 40 per cent of those cases were not assessed by a nurse either — something it called “unacceptable”.

Jimmie Akesson, leader of the populist Sweden Democrats, said people had died unnecessarily in Sweden, and that the report laid out how poorly the government had acted. “The ultimate responsibility is of course borne by prime minister Stefan Lofven,” he added on Twitter.

Lena Hallengren, social affairs minister, sought to implicate the previous centre-right government, which ruled from 2006 until 2014. She said: “The shortcomings in elderly care are rooted in decades of neglect. Had we seen and valued elderly care in the way we should have, we would probably not be in the situation we are now.”

The commission is due to release its final report in October 2021.

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