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COVID-19

Why is Denmark’s coronavirus lockdown so much tougher than Sweden’s?

To outsiders, Denmark and Sweden seem alike, but in their responses to coronavirus, they are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Why the difference and who, if either, is right?

Why is Denmark's coronavirus lockdown so much tougher than Sweden's?
Søren Brostrøm, Director General of the Danish Health Agency has described somme of Denmark's actions as 'political'. Photo: Scanpix.dk
The differences are quite extreme. Denmark was one of the first countries in Europe to close its borders, and has closed all schools, kindergartens, restaurants, and cafés and banned all gatherings of more than ten people.
 
In Sweden kindergartens, elementary schools, bars and cafés are still open as normal. 
 
Christian Wejse, an epidemiologist at Aarhus University, told The Local that he supported Denmark's rapid action to slow the development of the pandemic. 
 
“I'm a fan. I think we have a brave government and they've been ready to respond very quickly and in a very dramatic manner, even though the consequences are grave in terms of the economy,” he told The Local. “I think what applies here is the old saying, 'if you think preventing disease is expensive: try disease'.”  
 
In Sweden, state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has come under fire from both scientists and from the public for not pushing for a tougher lockdown. 
 
“How many lives are they willing to sacrifice to avoid closing down and risking major consequences for the country's economy,” Joachim Rocklöv, a professor of epidemiology and public health sciences at Umeå University, said in an email conversation obtained by Swedish public broadcaster SVT
 
But even Søren Brostrøm, Director General of the Danish Health Authority, described Friday's decision to close Denmark's borders as “political”. 
 
“Border closure was not in our catalogue [of actions]. This is partly because there is fairly modest evidence that it is effective,” he said a press conference on Saturday, adding that it had was not part of the recommendations of the World Health Organisation either. 
 
Sweden's state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who has been the leading force behind Sweden's more gradualist approach, explained to DR why Sweden had taken a more slowly-slowly approach.  
 
“In Sweden, our assessment is that its not relevant any more to close borders because the infection has already spread so much in every country in Europe, that inhibiting travel wouldn't have an effect,” he said.
 
The same cost-benefit analysis was behind its decision to not yet close elementary schools and kindergartens. 
 
“Closing schools is very significant, very complex measure, and we have discussed it a lot,” he said. “We know that we will see a lot of very negative effects from closing schools: you lose workforce in healthcare to an extent which is totally unacceptable to Sweden
 
“Children will also come out of school and meet a lot of other people, so it increases the risk of spreading the infection to others, and also the risk of spreading it to the elderly, who we think it is very important to protect.” 
 
On Monday, Denmark's Health Minister Magnus Heunicke was clear that some of his government's actions had no medical or scientific evidence to back them up. 
 
“We have no evidence that everything we are doing works,” he said. “But we would rather take a step too far today than find in three weeks that we have done too little.” 
 
“If we have to wait for full evidence to fight the corona, then it is my clear conviction that we will be too late,” Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said at the same press conference. 
 

Tegnell put the difference in the two countries' responses down in part to the high level of independence enjoyed by Swedish government agencies such as his employer, the Public Health Agency of Sweden. 
 
“In Sweden, government agencies are extremely independent, even if it's the government that has the final decision, and we have a long tradition for that,” he said. 
 
On the one hand, this means decisions are less likely to be made to appeal to public emotions. But on the other, it means Swedish politicians feel less able to bulldoze cautious bureaucrats.  
 
There are also demographic differences which could have an impact: Sweden has a population density of 25 per square kilometre, whereas Denmark has a population of 137 per square kilometre (although much of Sweden's population is concentrated in the big cities). 
 
But Tegnell argued that the coronavirus crisis had revealed deeper cultural differences between the two countries than expected. 
 
“There’s a bigger difference between Sweden and Denmark in many ways than we thought,” he said. “We speak nearly the same language, we share a lot of history and culture — but we have different social systems, and there are differences in the way the population reacts.” 
 
He said it was difficult to judge at present, but that his feeling was that Denmark's government had acted too rapidly and  heavy handedly.
 
“From a Swedish perspective, it looks like you are reacting a  little too quickly,” he told DR.  “We will see, after all this has finished, who comes out best.”
 
 

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COVID-19 ALERT

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.

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