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Sweden: Exclusion from Nordic travel zone 'political'

May 26, 2020

As Nordic countries ponder opening borders with each other, concerns have been raised about Sweden's inclusion. The country's COVID-19 death toll is nearly four times the total of its neighbors.

A Sweden flag tied to a fence in a park
Image: picture-alliance/Zuma/S. Babbar

Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said on Tuesday that her country should not be excluded from a potential open border agreement among Nordic nations, as plans to ease travel restrictions are crafted amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Linde said that excluding Sweden would be a political decision and one that would not be justifiable on health grounds.

Swedish media had raised concerns that residents of the country could be excluded from reopened borders, both in the Nordic region and elsewhere in Europe. In particular, news that Cyprus will not allow direct flights from Sweden, when it opens up on June 9, raised eyebrows.

Sweden has been the subject of criticism for its more relaxed coronavirus strategy, opting to keep most schools, bars and restaurants open. Sweden also did not close its borders to neighboring countries.

Read moreWhich European countries are open for summer tourism?

Linde noted that the EU had called for countries to not discriminate when reopening borders. "It is a very complicated issue, and I think that all politicians in every country should also look at the long term effect before they take very politically motivated decisions," she said.

But Sweden's neighbors have been hesitant, with both Denmark and Norway still deciding whether to lift restrictions soon or not.

Finland's border restrictions are in place until June 14, Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo said this month, confirming that travel bans could be lifted for some of its neighbors. However, Ohisalo called Sweden's epidemic situation "worrying."

Government defends policy

Sweden's government has continued to defend its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, despite reporting one of the highest mortality rates in the world, with 4,125 deaths, or about 40 per 100,000 people.

The country's coronavirus death toll is nearly four times the combined total of its Nordic neighbors.

''Transmission is slowing down, the treatment of COVID-19 patients in intensive care is decreasing significantly, and the rising death toll curve has been flattened,'' Foreign Minister Linde said. 

''There is no full lockdown of Sweden, but many parts of the Swedish society have shut down,'' she added, responding to accusations that the country had not done much to curb the spread of the virus.

The question of whether the country applied the correct strategy is also a heated debate domestically. 

Sweden's former state epidemiologist, Annika Linde, who handled the country's response to swine flu and SARS, said an early lockdown could have saved lives.

Read moreLife after coronavirus: 'We can shape a totally different world'

''Most likely, we would still be a bit worse off [than other Nordic countries], but better off than we are now, and we would possibly have gained time to prepare the strategy to protect the elderly,'' she told AP on Monday.

''In retrospect, I think it would have been worthwhile trying the strategy of Denmark, Norway and Iceland and Finland,'' she said.

Annika Linde said she felt the need to speak out after a leading member of the health agency claimed Sweden's strategy was the best in the world.

''I felt this can't go on,'' Linde said. ''Such a denial may prevent us from acting rationally.''

Read moreCoronavirus: When will the second wave of infections hit?

Foreign Minister Ann Linde said it was good that experts were saying what they thought. ''We have freedom of speech in Sweden,'' she said.     

Ann Linde added that the government wouldn't hesitate to change Sweden's policy "if we think that will be necessary.''

Restarting tourism in the EU

jcg/dr (AP, Reuters)

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