Sweden’s king has said his country “failed” to save lives with its relatively relaxed approach to the coronavirus pandemic.
King Carl XVI Gustaf made the remarks as part of an annual TV review of the year with the royal family.
Sweden, which has never imposed a full lockdown, has seen nearly 350,000 cases and more than 7,800 deaths – a lot more than its Scandinavian neighbours.
Prime Minister Stefan Lofven said he agreed with the king’s remarks.
“Of course the fact that so many have died can’t be considered as anything other than a failure,” Mr Lofven told reporters.
Referring to the government’s strategy, Mr Lofven added that “it’s when we are through the pandemic that the real conclusions can be drawn”.
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In the programme, the king says: “I think we have failed. We have a large number who have died and that is terrible.
“The people of Sweden have suffered tremendously in difficult conditions. One thinks of all the family members who have happened to be unable to say goodbye to their deceased family members. I think it is a tough and traumatic experience not to be able to say a warm goodbye.”
When asked if he was afraid of being infected with Covid-19, the king – who is 74 – said: “Lately, it has felt more obvious, it has crept closer and closer. That’s not what you want.”
Instead of relying on legal sanctions, Sweden appeals to citizens’ sense of responsibility and civic duty, and issues only recommendations. There are no sanctions if they are ignored.
Sweden has never imposed a nationwide lockdown or the wearing of masks, and bars and restaurants have remained open.
However, earlier this week, schools across the Stockholm region were asked to switch to distance learning for 13 to 15-year-olds for the first time as soon as possible. The measure was announced in response to rising Covid-19 cases.
This came a week after a nationwide decision on 7 December to switch to remote learning for those over 16.
And on Monday, new nationwide social-distancing recommendations for the Christmas period came into force, replacing similar region-specific guidelines.
Swedes are advised to meet a maximum of eight people, gather outdoors if possible and avoid travelling by train or bus.
A formal ban on public gatherings of more than eight people remains, affecting events such as concerts, sports matches and demonstrations.
Sweden’s state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, in November explained the strategy relied on a combination of legal and voluntary measures.
He told the BBC that this was, in the Swedish context, “the combination that we really believe is the best one”.
According to an official report released earlier this week, the strategy failed in its effort to protect the elderly in care homes – for which the government has admitted responsibility.
Over 90% of Covid-related deaths have been among those aged 70 and over, and nearly half of all Covid deaths have been in care homes, the government says.
Mr Tegnell said his agency (Sweden’s Public Health Agency) was not responsible for directing the elderly care system, and added all stakeholders needed to help to improve the situation to make sure the elderly did not get infected.
He said he thought Sweden had become better at protecting older people, and that no country had succeeded entirely in that area – even Germany was being hit hard right now, he told Swedish radio on Wednesday.
Sweden has had more deaths than the rest of the Nordic countries combined. This has led to criticism from the country’s neighbours, Norway, Denmark and Finland, that its less strict approach is putting their own measures at risk.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Lofven also said he felt many experts had underestimated the second wave.
“I think most in the profession did not see such a wave incoming. There was instead talk of different clusters,” he said in an interview with daily Aftonbladet.