Pandemic fatigue tests Sweden's soft-touch COVID-19 strategy

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Sweden's reluctance to impose COVID lockdowns is being tested by growing pandemic fatigue and the rapid spread of a likely more contagious variant first identified in Britain as the country battles a third wave.

The Nordic country has shunned lockdowns throughout the pandemic, relying on social distancing and hygiene recommendations. Schools and businesses for the most part have stayed open.

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The Swedish Health Agency has argued that voluntary measures can achieve as much as lockdowns without harming the economy, child welfare and the general health of the population to the same extent.

Another key argument for Sweden's less intrusive strategy has also been that it is more sustainable over time. But authorities have found that adherence to pandemic protocols may be flagging.

"There's quite a bit of what is called 'pandemic fatigue' to keep in mind," Chief Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell said this month. "We saw a good effect after the measures put in place in November and December, but now we have to increase (measures) again."

A new law comes into effect on Thursday that would allow the government to shut businesses in what would be the most drastic measures yet. Health Minister Lena Hallengren said on Wednesday there were no immediate plans for a lockdown.

Sweden has seen infections rise again after falling in January and February. Combined with the rise of the so-called British variant and a beleaguered healthcare system, the situation has led to calls for a lockdown.

"We are in the midst of a third wave and for it not to turn into an uncontrollable tsunami, we need to take tough action early," said opposition Centre party leader Annie Loof this week. She wants to close shopping malls for three weeks.

Sweden has gradually added more binding restrictions and tougher recommendations since November. Restaurants and cafes have to close by 8.30 p.m., while shops face crowd limits.

Not everyone is so sure about the benefits of a lockdown.

"What's the point of locking down a year after the pandemic started?," said Thomas Yavuz, 35, owner of a pizzeria in central Stockholm. "The one thing I liked about the Swedish model was that it gave us personal responsibility, but stricter rules would take that out of our hands."

While infections have risen, deaths have declined over the past two months, a trend authorities believe is underpinned by the rollout of vaccines.

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