Sweden admits virus response could have been better
Coronavirus Sweden (Jonathan NACKSTRAND AFP)

Sweden's top epidemiologist said Wednesday there was room for improvement in the country's controversial softer approach to curbing the spread of COVID-19, but maintained he still had faith in the strategy.

Anders Tegnell, the public face of Sweden's virus response, defended the decision not to impose the strict lockdowns seen in other countries. But as more information had become available, adjustments to the strategy could have been made, he added.

"If we were to encounter the same disease with everything we know about it today, I think we would end up doing something in between what Sweden and the rest of the world has done," Tegnell told Swedish Radio.

Sweden has so far reported 40,803 confirmed cases and 4,542 deaths, a toll far greater than neighboring countries and described by Tegnell as "absolutely" too high.

He stressed however that he was still unsure which added measures would have made a difference.

"It would be good to know more precisely what you should shut down to better prevent a spread of the infection," he said.

Schools have remained open to under-16s. Cafes, bars and restaurants and most businesses have also stayed open.

People have been urged to work from home, limit contacts, practice social distancing and wash hands frequently. The public is expected to follow the recommendations, but they are not legally binding.

- 'Strategy is sound' -

Sweden did however ban visits to nursing homes and gatherings of more than 50 people.

Speaking to reporters later Wednesday, Tegnell stressed that his comments should not be taken to mean that he or the Public Health Agency had had second thoughts about their strategy.

"We're still of the opinion that the strategy is sound, but then there are always improvements to make, especially in hindsight," Tegnell told reporters.

"I personally think it would be rather odd to answer anything else to such a question," he added.

Sweden's leaders have repeatedly stressed that the measures are designed for the long haul, that the fight against the virus is a "marathon, not a sprint".

But their approach has been criticized at home and abroad, particularly as the number of deaths has far exceeded those in neighboring Nordic countries, which all imposed more restrictive containment measures.

Tegnell noted what he called an "ambivalent" view of Sweden abroad, with their approach receiving both praise and scorn.

"Sometimes it has been perceived as a bit of a threat, because it could indirectly cast doubt on some of the fairly drastic measures undertaken," Tegnell said.

Speaking separately to Swedish news agency TT, he said implementing heavy-handed measures "can also do more damage.

"There's no direct correlation between doing a lot and being cautious," he argued.

"There's nothing to indicate that we would have had a totally different outcome if we had implemented more drastic measures.

"Britain did that but did not have a good outcome." he said.