Sweden ended a six-month ban on visits to nursing homes on Thursday, delighting residents and their relatives but also prompting fears of a return to the grim months of spring when COVID-19 caused thousands of deaths at care facilities.
The timing is awkward, however. Sweden recorded 752 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, the biggest daily rise since June.
Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist and the architect behind the country’s soft-touch pandemic strategy, said lifting the ban entailed risks but needed to be weighed against the suffering lonely residents endure.
“It must be remembered that it’s a right for those who live in nursing homes to receive visits. The nursing homes now have to ensure that visits can be made in a safe manner,” he told a news conference.
The ban was one of only a few binding restrictions Sweden imposed during the pandemic. Most other measures are voluntary and focused on social distancing and good hygiene. Schools, restaurants and businesses have largely remained open.
COVID-19 deaths in Sweden have been many times higher than in neighbouring Nordic countries, and its strategy has been criticized at home and abroad.
But it also has supporters who say it has protected the economy from the worst of the pandemic. Although Sweden’s export-dependent economy has taken a huge hit, it has fared much better than most of Europe.
The harshest criticism within Sweden has been reserved for its handling of the vulnerable.
During the spring many nursing homes lacked safety equipment and testing for staff was inadequate. The Public Health Agency estimates that around 90% of confirmed cases at nursing homes have been infected by staff.
Of Sweden’s nearly 5,900 deaths, around 2,600 have occurred at nursing homes.