Why is Sweden’s Covid-19 response still so much slower than Denmark’s?

Why is Sweden's Covid-19 response still so much slower than Denmark's?
Denmark's Covid-19 vaccine pass was up and running in April. Sweden's is still in preparation. Photo: Tom Little/AFP
Sweden's health authorities are often months behind their counterparts in Denmark and Norway when it comes to taking specific measures against the Covid-19 pandemic. What are the reasons for the different approaches?

Sweden’s government on Thursday said it would still push ahead with developing a system for vaccine passes — even though after the lifting of the last Covid-19 restrictions next week, there will probably never be a use for them.

“The proposed vaccination pass, which is currently out for consultation, is not going to be needed for any events,” Sweden’s culture minister Amanda Lind, confirmed at a press conference on Thursday, although health minister Lena Hallengren stressed that there was still a chance it could be used in future if there is a resurgence in infections. 

Over in Denmark, the covidpas is already ancient history. 

It was set up and in use as early as April, helping Danes drink, eat out and visit attractions safely over the spring and summer, before going into retirement at the start of this month as the last restrictions were lifted. 

This is not the only way Sweden has appeared to be months behind its neighbour.

Denmark began vaccinating 12- to 15-year-olds at the start of July, meaning many were fully vaccinated by the time school started in August. Sweden only decided to vaccinate 12- to 15-year-olds in the past few weeks, and the Public Health Agency initially advising regions to only start giving the jabs in November, though it later brought this recommendation forward to October. 

In late July, Danish authorities spotted that too many people in their late teens and 20s were not getting around to getting vaccinated even though they weren’t opposed to doing so principle. The Danish Health Authority then launched a concerted campaign alongside regional health authorities to reach them wherever they gather, opening pop-up, drop-in vaccination centres at schools, universities, and even shopping malls. 

Sweden’s regions have only just started launching such schemes over the past few weeks — a full month behind Denmark. 

It can’t simply be explained by the fact Danish authorities have been more prepared to take drastic measures than their Swedish counterparts. Denmark is also ahead when it comes to scaling back restrictions. 

On September 10th, Denmark stopped classifying Covid-19 as a “critical threat to society”, and Norway quickly followed suit, but Sweden has not yet made a decision on altering the classification of the illness. 

Jonatan Strang, an associate Professor at Helsinki University specialising in comparing public administration in Nordic countries, said that Sweden and Finland both had a tradition of only bringing in new measures after thorough processes, making them slower in a crisis. 

“It’s part of the kind of concept of democracy in Sweden, that in order to implement a decision, it needs to be thoroughly investigated by experts, and it also needs to be thoroughly legitimised, it needs a broad support,” he explained.

“So that’s why they always send this proposals out to different kinds of experts and to different kinds of authorities, he said. “In Denmark,” he added, “the culture is to take a decision and do the investigations afterwards.”

In Sweden, and to a lesser extent in Finland, he added, ministers were not supposed to interfere in the operations of government agencies, with minsterstyre or “ministerial rulefrowned upon or even expressly prohibited, while in Denmark and Norway ministers have ultimate responsibility. 

“In Denmark, ministers are more directly responsible for everything that that happens within the authorities under them,” Strang said. “They get fired if it doesn’t work, so this means that the political response time is usually much swifter.” 

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Lars Jonung, an emeritus professor of economics at Lund University, argues that the Swedish system has brought benefits, keeping the Swedish response more measured and rational than in most other countries, and avoiding mistakes. 

He pointed to Denmark’s decision to kill almost all of the minks in the country’s mink farms after worrying virus variants were detected, although this is now thought to have been unnecessary.

In fact, when The Local asked Swedish Health Minister Lena Hallengren in December why the country was slower than Denmark, she pointed to the killing of the mink as an example that speedy responses were not always the best.

“Denmark has a much more centralised system that allows the prime minister to send all the minks to execution, which was just an overreaction,” Jonung said. “In Sweden, the kind of pandemic populism you see in other countries has not had the constitutional prerequisites to develop.” 

However, as well as Sweden’s constitutional structure, the slow decision-making has also arguably been a question of leadership. 

In its assessment of the Covid-response in the first wave, Denmark’s own expert commission said that it did not believe that Sweden’s constitutional structure was enough to explain why its response was so much slower and weaker than Denmark’s. 

“It is the judgement of the expert group that these differences [in response] did not arise because of the different institutional structures around Swedish health preparedness and the Swedish Covid-19 response…or that the decision-making structures are more decentralised.” 

“There was a political decision in Sweden to stick to a prior strategy that had been formulated years in advance, a political choice, which explicitly supported the line that the Public Health Authority had decided to follow.” 

Nicholas Aylott, associate professor of politics at Södertörn University, said that Prime Minister Stefan Löfven had shown himself to be slow to take decisions throughout his two terms, both during the mass influx of refugees in 2015, when Sweden tightened refugee rules long after Denmark and Norway did, and during the pandemic. 

“The nadir of this period has been pandemic handling when you had government minister who basically became spokespeople for a public authority, and didn’t even pretend to take any important decisions,” he said. 

“I have a hard time imagining that any other prime minister in Swedish modern history, could have been so extraordinarily passive in these huge crises.” 


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