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Coronavirus: Hard-hit Sweden admits it could have battled COVID-19 better

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State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell of the Public Health Agency of Sweden in Stockholm, Sweden, on June 3, 2020.
State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell of the Public Health Agency of Sweden in Stockholm, Sweden, on June 3, 2020.   -   Copyright  ANDERS WIKLUND/AFP
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The architect of Sweden's coronavirus strategy today admitted there was "potential for improvement" over the country's handling of the crisis.

Unlike most of its European neighbours and many other countries around the world, Sweden did not impose a strict lockdown. Social distancing was promoted and large gatherings banned. But the country kept its bars and restaurants open throughout.

Sweden has the fifth-highest per capita COVID-19 death rates in the world if you microstates like San Marino and Andorra.

“I think there is potential for improvement in what we have done in Sweden, quite clearly,” Anders Tegnell, Sweden's leading epidemiologist, said on Wednesday.

Tegnell has been viewed as the designer of the country's unique approach to handling the pandemic.

Sweden has reported 4,468 COVID-19 deaths, a much higher death toll than other Nordic countries, with Denmark seeing 580 deaths, Finland 320 and Norway 237, according to a count kept by Johns Hopkins University.

This death rate was described by Tegnell as "far" too high.

“If we were to encounter the same disease again, knowing precisely what we know about it today, I think we would settle on doing something in between what Sweden did and what the rest of the world has done,” he said.

"It would be good to know more precisely what we should do to stop the spread of the disease," he added.

Tegnell and Swedish authorities were criticised for not taking sufficient measures to protect the elderly and residents in care homes. They have now apologised.

The Swedish authorities have repeated in the media that the fight against the coronavirus is "a marathon, not a sprint".

On Wednesday, Tegnell nuanced his contrition by saying it is unclear exactly what the country should have done differently, and added that it's difficult to know what measures implement abroad had the most impact to protect people since they were all introduced together.

“Maybe we know that now, when you start easing the measures, we could get some kind of lesson about what else, besides what we did, you could do without a total shutdown,” he said.

But Tegnell also said that the high Swedish death toll has "absolutely" made him reconsider his approach.

Despite not locking down, the country has still suffered economically from the pandemic: more than 76,000 people have been made redundant and unemployment is currently at 7.9%, with estimates expecting it to rise.

The moves recommended by Tegnell have made Sweden a bit of a local pariah and did not spare the Swedish economy. More than 76,000 people have been made redundant since the outbreak began and unemployment, which now stands at 7.9%, is expected to climb higher.

Norway and Denmark said last week that they were lifting border controls but would continue to check travellers from Sweden.

Meanwhile, Denmark said it will reopen its border to German, Norwegian and Icelandic citizens from July, but despite the country having a bridge that goes directly to Sweden, the decision to reopen its border to Swedes has been postponed to after the summer.