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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Sweden’s Covid travel ban is getting more and more absurd

It's time for Sweden to take back control of its borders, and let vaccinated people in, writes The Local's publisher James Savage.

OPINION: Sweden's Covid travel ban is getting more and more absurd
Around 45,000 people will be able to cram into a Stockholm arena to watch Elton John next month – but will the main act even be allowed to cross the border? Photo: AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

For those of us with tickets to the twice-delayed Stockholm leg of Elton John’s farewell tour on October 1st, this week brought long-awaited news: restrictions on large gatherings, along with most other binding pandemic rules, will be removed in Sweden from September 29th. 

So the concert is on: 45,000 mask-free Elton fans are authorised to gather in the Tele2 arena two nights running, jostling in line, no social distancing, no masks (this is Sweden, after all), and no vaccine passports. We can hang out in the bars before and afterwards, and cram on to the metro on the way there and back.

But one person might theoretically not be allowed to join them: Elton John himself.

We know he has been vaccinated – he has even appeared in British government campaign videos urging people to get jabbed. But he is British, lives in the UK, and Sweden has a general ban on travel from non-EU countries, the UK included.

Of course, the list of exceptions to the ban is extensive: Swedish citizens can always enter the country, unconditionally. There are 100,000 of them living in the UK alone, and as anyone who has flown the London-Stockholm route can testify, they always account for a huge proportion of the people on the plane. Anyone who is a legal resident of Sweden can also enter the country. 

There are a few more exceptions: “highly-qualified workers” can be exempted from the ban if “the work is vital from an economic perspective and can’t be delayed or carried out at a distance”. An individual border guard will have to decide whether Elton’s 38 platinum albums qualify him, or whether the more than 80,000 tickets sold for his concerts make this economically vital for Sweden. Alternatively, the government can grant him a personal exemption.

Alternatively, Elton could just come via Denmark, which is admitting fully-vaccinated Brits, among others. Sweden allows free entry from other Nordic countries, so Denmark is a wide-open back door to Sweden.

Meanwhile, millions of people who live in Sweden have family abroad, and for them there is no blanket exemption. Being subject to Denmark’s travel regulations adds a level of complexity that makes it hard for people to plan their travel. And while Zoom has helped ease the pain of enforced separation, not being able to hug, share a dinner or a drink, go for a walk, watch TV or play games together is taking its toll. 

Norway, which otherwise has had draconian border restrictions, has at least finally recognised the importance of families by making an exception from the travel ban for certain close family and romantic partners (though not siblings), even if testing and hotel quarantine will be obligatory on arrival. But it’s important to remember that for many people, friends or siblings who live in different countries are just as essential to well-being as parents or adult children are for others.

Other EU countries have gone one step further, and are now allowing people from certain countries who are immunised with EU-approved vaccines to enter their countries without further testing or quarantine. Most recently, France has added the US to the list of countries from which it will accept vaccinated travellers. Germany, Spain and Italy are also accepting vaccine certification from certain non-EU countries. Swedish interior minister Mikael Damberg has hinted at doing something similar, but no date and no details have been announced, and nothing is confirmed. Training border guards to recognise foreign vaccine certificates is a complicating factor, but if other countries can do it, Sweden can too.

Vaccines are not a panacea. We know that people can still get ill after being vaccinated and can still spread the disease. However, the risk of both is significantly reduced. And like most other countries, with vaccine coverage soon at 80 percent, Sweden has opted to accept a level of risk on the home front as the price of our freedom to enjoy culture, to work and socialise. 

And if they don’t open up to vaccinated travellers, what is Sweden’s long-term plan? To keep outsourcing border control to Denmark? To keep making random personal exemptions for VIPs? The current situation is starting to look absurd – and all the while those of us with family and friends elsewhere are suffering. It’s time for Sweden to take back control of its borders, and let vaccinated people in. 

Member comments

  1. Completely agree. I’m all for requiring vaccination on entry, but the blanket ban is quite frustrating. I wonder if the media could apply some more pressure on this point?

  2. Seriously high time. My parent’s visa to visit me on the clause of participation of birth was rejected , despite it being a legit clause on the website.
    They rejected because they couldn’t justify that their support was needed because I had a partner here. So new mothers don’t need their parents for emotional support? I don’t understand lifting restrictions, letting their own people travel other countries on vacation and back to Sweden is ok?
    But my parents, Both of them fully vaccinated, traveling to meet their daughter who is pregnant after a long struggle and a miscarriage , about to give birth isn’t a good enough reason. A condition mentioned on the website as an example of imperative family reasons is not ok?
    So what does “participation at birth “ mean? And if there are conditions applied to it, why not clearly mention that. Then people won’t spend money on applications that they know will be rejected

    1. Sorry, the rejected reason was that they are a “Threat to the Member states”.
      And towards the end the summary was that i had a partner to support me. And that my parents coming here as an extra support was not a justifying enough reason for them to enter.
      Apparently parent’s moral support for new mothers is a lost cause. :/

    1. Yeah, but i still need a visa..Denmark won’t give my parents visa for childbirth in Sweden 😀
      And i don’t think i can get a visa for them just to visit say a relative in Denmark.
      So we are sort of cornered.

  3. As an example…Israel this is one of the most vaccinated countries on earth. Israeli citizens are on their second or third booster shot and Israel is now the worst covid ravaged country in the region. So bad in fact that Sweden wisely put a travel ban on Israelis entering Sweden VAX’d or not…With every shot, the statistics are seemingly get worse, not better! Now its common knowledge that the vaccine does not stop you catching nor spreading, so what’s with everyone’s love of this vaccine passport? Stockholm syndrome or something? I do not get it!

    1. Actually a very recent study from Oxford Uni shows that despite the same viral load, the vaccine does reduce the chance of spreading the virus. So long live the vaccines and the passports, as far as I am concerned.

  4. Does anyone know if Indian traveller’s with a valid Schengen can come through Germany? How’s Germany with letting passengers transit to Sweden? (tia)

  5. How this 80% vaccine coverage counted? I think it is >16 years old. Otherwise numbers in Sweden do not seem so good, at least with the rest of Europe. https://ourworldindata.org/covid-vaccinations shows that the share of population with at least one dose in Sweden, is 70%, while in Italy is 75%, Denmark 77%, Spain 81% and Portugal 85%. Sticking to the double doses we have Sweden, 65%, Italy 68%, Denmark 75%, Spain 78% and Portugal 85%.
    It is simply ridiculous to lock the door to people who have a vaccine certificate, and squeeze 45000 in a concert ball, without any check at least. I guess this is part of Tegnell’s plan to flatten the curve.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Swedes have a reputation as a nation of orderly queuers. But it doesn't take long living here before you realise that for things that matter - housing, schools, health treatment - there are ways of jumping the line.

OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Soon after my daughter was born, I emailed Malmö’s sought after daycare cooperatives to get on their waiting lists. 

I didn’t get an answer from any of them, so a year later, I began dropping her off at the daycare allotted to us by the municipality. 

It was housed in a concrete structure so grim-looking that it was used as the gritty backdrop to the police station in The Bridge, the Scandinavian Noir crime drama based in Malmö. Getting there involved taking a lift that frequently smelled of urine. The rooftop playground was (after we had left) used by local dealers to stash drugs.

But to be fair, it was close to our house and in other ways, perfectly adequate. 

A year later, though, I got a call from one of the cooperatives I had emailed. My daughter Eira was next in line. Did I want to come to meet the staff and existing parents?

When I arrived, I discovered I wasn’t alone. My friend, a Swede looking to establish herself in Malmö after a decade in London, was there, as were several others.

Listen to a discussion about queue-jumping on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

I soon had a distinct feeling of being outmanoeuvered, as I watched her identify the parents in charge of new intakes and get to work on them, asking intelligent questions, demonstrating her engagement, and generally turning on the charm. 

A few days later I discovered that, even though I’d been told Eira was top of the list, my friend’s son had got the place. 

This was my first lesson in Swedish queuing, and it is a pattern I’ve seen time and time again.

Swedes, I’ve learned, generally respect a queue if it’s visible, physical, and not about anything particularly important. But when it comes to waiting lists for things such as housing, schools, and healthcare, many people, perhaps even most, will work their contacts, pull strings, find loopholes, if it helps them jump the line. 

When it was time for the children of the parents I knew to go to school, several of them — all otherwise upstanding law-abiding people — temporarily registered themselves at the addresses of friends who lived near the desirable municipal options, and then, after their children got places, moved back.

When I protested weakly that by doing this were depriving someone else’s child of their rightful place, they simply shrugged. 

When Eira joined Malmöflickorna, a dance gymnastics troupe that is a kind of Malmö institution, the other parents whispered to me that joining the troupe helped you get your child into Bladins, Malmö’s most exclusive free school, as the troupe had longstanding links. 

When it comes to accessing health treatment, I’ve learned, it doesn’t pay to stoically wait in line. When I was recently sent for a scan, I immediately rang up the clinic my primary health care centre had chosen for me. The receptionist spotted a time that had just become free the next day, and slotted me in, saving what could have been months of waiting. 

If you’re looking to buy a house, I’m told it pays to develop good relationships with estate agents, as sometimes they will sell a house without even listing it. And there are all sorts of ways to jump the long rental queues in Swedish cities, some involving paying money, some simply exploiting contacts. 

I’m not, myself, much of an operator, but I’ve also learned to take advantage of any opportunities that crop up. 

A year after we had lost our battle for the daycare place, the same Swedish friend got in touch. She had managed to upgrade to an even more sought-after cooperative. (This one has had world-famous novelists and Oscar-contending film directors as present and former parents.)

There was a place free, and she was in charge of the queue. Did we want it for Eira? The queue at this daycare, I soon discovered, was pure fiction. The municipality has since cracked down, but at the time, places went to the friends and contacts of whichever parents happened to be on the board, or failing that, to people in the queue who seemed the right kind of person. 

It didn’t seem right, but of course, we took the place. 

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