Parts of Sweden have reversed their scepticism towards face masks with officials urging people to wear them on public transport, at work and in shops.
The change in tone in a country that has been so-far resistant towards the use of face masks comes as Sweden braces itself for a third wave of coronavirus infections.
Health statistics agency figures released on Tuesday showed 10,933 new coronavirus cases had been registered since Friday, a rise from 9,458 in the corresponding period the previous week.
This represents a 27 percent rise in the number of new coronavirus cases in the past week, after Sweden recently saw its hospital bed capacity pushed to its limit.
On Tuesday, authorities in several of Sweden’s largest regions, including Stockholm, introduced a series of new recommendations.
These include the use of face masks on public transport at all times – not just during rush hour – and that masks should be worn in shops and offices in the city.
Concerns about a possible third wave of the pandemic have been growing in Sweden as the number of new infections rose and the new variants spread.
Sweden so far has avoided lockdowns throughout the pandemic, but the centre-left government has laid the ground for potential lockdown measures to an extent not seen earlier during the pandemic.
The new recommendations will be in place until at least March 22, with the official recommendations asking people to wear masks in situations where prolonged close contact can occur in an indoor environment.
They also state that people should always wear them on public transport, and to avoid travel where possible – including when it comes to the use of public transport.
Working from home is also being encouraged, while distance learning for some age groups in schools and universities will also be implemented.
The measures are at odds with the health agency’s past reluctance to broadly endorse such moves because of limited evidence of their efficacy.
Having taken a hands-off approach for much of the pandemic, Sweden’s government has been forced to reconsider due to the relentlessness of the virus.
The country’s parliament introduced legislation last month to allow for tougher pandemic restrictions.
Sweden’s stance of face masks during the pandemic has long been controversial with Anders Tegnell, the state epidemiologist, repeatedly questioning their effectiveness and pushing for the more hands-off approach.
But after almost a year of disagreements, protective face coverings will become more widespread in Sweden.
‘We need to increase face-mask wearing a lot,’ infection control officer Maria Rotzen Ostlund said, according to Bloomberg .
‘However, disposable face masks are only a complement, and the most important thing is to keep a distance.’
Tegnell said Sweden ‘unfortunately is seeing an upswing again,’ adding the variant first reported in Britain ‘has increased at a very fast pace.’
‘We have a package (of national measures) being readied that will be presented tomorrow,’ he said, giving no details.
Throughout the pandemic, Sweden’s Public Health Agency has questioned the science behind face masks as an effective tool to protect individuals from Covid-19.
It has argued that face masks create a false sense of security that might lead people to grow complacent, and believe social distancing does not need to be followed as closely when wearing one.
However, this view has come under fire from other organisations and experts in the country, including Sweden’s Royal Academy of Science, which published a report backing the use of face masks as a key way to reduce transmissions.
Sweden, a country of 10 million people, has registered 12,713 deaths from COVID-19.
The death rate per capita is much higher than its Nordic neighbours’ but lower than in several countries in Europe that opted for lockdowns.
While Sweden has seen 642,099 cases per million people, Denmark has seen 36,033 per million, Norway has seen 12,683 per million, and Finland 9,769 per million.
When it comes to deaths, the comparison is similar, with Sweden reporting 1,252.47 deaths per million people, compared with 403.82 in Denmark, 131,03 in Finland, and 111.97 per million in Norway.
Norway, Denmark and Finland have all taken a more hands-on approach when it comes to coronavirus restrictions.