If there’s been a fall in custom at the Nyhavn restaurant, it’s hardly noticeable. Groups of drinkers huddle under heat lamps out on Möllevång Square, the centre of nightlife in the Swedish city of Malmö, seemingly oblivious to the virus spreading through Europe.
“It’s the Swedish trust in government,” says Elias Billman, 22. “No one told me you have to stay home right now,” agrees his friend, Fredrik Glückman, a history student at Lund University. “We’re not in quarantine. And as soon as we hear from our government that we have to stay in, like you do in Britain, then we will do it.”
“But not,” Billman adds, “if Boris Johnson says it.”
While every other country in Europe has been ordered into ever more stringent coronavirus lockdown, Sweden has remained the exception. Schools, kindergartens, bars, restaurants, ski resorts, sports clubs, hairdressers: all remain open, weeks after everything closed down in next door Denmark and Norway.
Universities have been closed, and on Friday, the government tightened the ban on events to limit them to no more than 50 people. But if you develop symptoms, you can still go back to work or school just two days after you feel better. If a parent starts showing symptoms, they’re allowed to continue to send their children to school.
It has only been in the past couple of days that the death toll has started to increase significantly, rising by a third in a single day on Thursday and Friday, with 92 people now dead and 209 in intensive care. As he announced the tighter restrictions on Friday, the prime minister, Stefan Löfven, warned that the coming weeks and months would be tough.
But he defended the decision not to implement the tighter restrictions seen in Denmark, France and the UK. “We all, as individuals, have to take responsibility. We can’t legislate and ban everything,” he said. “It is also a question of commonsense behaviour.”
Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, believes it is counterproductive to bring in the tightest restrictions at too early a stage. “As long as the Swedish epidemic development stays at this level,” he tells the Observer, “I don’t see any big reason to take measures that you can only keep up for a very limited amount of time.”