Science

Sweden, noted for its lax COVID-19 response, never mandated face masks. Now it’s dropping its vague recommendation to wear one at all.

Summary List PlacementSweden broke with most of the rest of the world and never mandated that people wear masks during the coronavirus pandemic. Now its even dropping its lose recommendation to use them. Sweden's Public Health Agency said that its recommendation people wear face masks on rush hour on public transport ends on Thursday. It had advised masking between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., and 4 p.m. and 6 p.m, but only when people could not easily distance themselves from others. There were no circumstances in which the government said people had to wear masks in other public places. The "how to protect...

Sweden coronavirus

Summary List Placement

Sweden broke with most of the rest of the world and never mandated that people wear masks during the coronavirus pandemic. Now its even dropping its lose recommendation to use them.

Sweden’s Public Health Agency said that its recommendation people wear face masks on rush hour on public transport ends on Thursday.

It had advised masking between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., and 4 p.m. and 6 p.m, but only when people could not easily distance themselves from others.

There were no circumstances in which the government said people had to wear masks in other public places.

Sweden coronavirus

The “how to protect yourself” section on the agency’s website does not mention face coverings. Nor does its list of recommendations for reducing the spread, in contrast to what most countries’ health agencies say.

The agency says on its website that “advice on mouth protection in public transport during rush hour is removed” from July 1.

The announcement comes as part of a wider easing on the same day, including the axing of restrictions on restaurant opening hours and more people being allowed at events.

People living in Sweden previously told Insider that they were looked at strangely for wearing masks, and some said that they attracted abuse when they did. They said they were afraid because so few people were wearing masks, especially compared to other European countries.

And others told Insider they almost never wore one, but felt safe because other measures like distancing were widely employed.

Jan Albert, an infectious diseases expert at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, told Insider that he thought Sweden’s new change made sense.

He cited the falling number of new coronavirus cases in Sweden, despite the growth of the highly contagious Delta variant, and the fact that many of the most vulnerable people in Sweden have now been vaccinated. 

A chart showing how the number of new daily coronavirus cases in Sweden have fallen.

Other countries are taking a different approach. The UK, which has a higher proportion of its population vaccinated than Sweden, has seen cases surge with the Delta variant. In response it delayed reopenings and said mask wearing should continue even as restrictions eased further.

A graph showing how a higher proportion of the UK population has received at least one vaccine dose compared to Sweden.

Albert also noted that few people were even acting on the mask recommendation.

“Removal of mask recommendations in certain situations is likely to have a minimal negative effect because the recommendation was poorly followed in the first place.”

Sweden coronavirus

Most of the world’s governments have required people to wear face masks in certain situations, and some European countries have made people wear them outside.

Masks are recommended by global and national heath bodies, including the US Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, which say they make it harder for the virus to spread.

This made Sweden an outlier even before its recommendation ended on Thursday.

Sweden’s response was already unique

Sweden is already used to having an unusual pandemic response.

While other nations implemented lockdowns, Sweden had few rules, focusing instead on social distancing. Services like indoor dining were never completely shut.

Sweden coronavirus

Its death toll more than neighbouring countries with similar populations.

But its deaths did stay lower than many other European countries.

Experts said this could be down to to unique aspects of Sweden, like its high volume of people that live alone and high trust in the government, which suggests people are likely to follow recommendations even without formal rules.

But the government and Public Health Agency did admit that they made mistakes.

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