The prime minister of Sweden was forced to defend his COVID-19 strategy after opposition parties mounted a scathing attack on his government amid signs its handling of the pandemic has been fatally flawed.

With more than 4,500 Swedes now dead as a result of the coronavirus, and Sweden’s chief epidemiologist admitting mistakes, Prime Minister Stefan Lofven was the target of a series of rebukes during a debate among party leaders broadcast on Sunday night.

Ulf Kristersson, the leader of the main opposition party known as the Moderates, said “there have been obvious, fundamental failures” in Sweden’s response to COVID-19.

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State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell of the Public Health Agency of Sweden gives a daily update on the coronavirus COVID-19 situation, in Stockholm, Sweden, on June 3. Anders Wiklund / TT via AP

Until now, lawmakers in Sweden had observed a tacit political truce when discussing the country’s COVID strategy. But that all changed last week, when state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell acknowledged that some of his decisions may have been misguided.

Since the virus hit, Tegnell has advised the government to leave most of society open, on an assumption that doing so would be more sustainable in the long run. But Sweden’s Covid mortality rate is now among the highest in the world, and many times higher than in the other Scandinavian countries. Like elsewhere, Sweden’s oldest citizens have been particularly hard hit.

“We didn’t get protective equipment to elderly care homes in time, although everyone knew that their residents were the most vulnerable,” Kristersson said.

But Lofven said there’s no reason to abandon Sweden’s approach. “The strategy is the right one,” he said during the debate on Sunday.

The prime minister acknowledged, however, that there was room for improvement. “We have far too many fatalities in elderly care.” He also said the government “should have tested more people.”

Pressure is mounting on Lofven as Sweden’s response to the virus puts it on a dramatically different path from countries that adopted much tougher lockdowns. Swedes suddenly find themselves facing travel restrictions in the European Union due to the high infection rate in their country.

Meanwhile, citizens in neighboring Denmark are gradually returning to normal life after their government’s decision to shutter much of the economy in mid-March led to a dramatic slump in the covid-19 infection rate. As of Monday, Danes will once again be able to visit gyms and public pools, and a ban on groups no larger than 10 was lifted, with the new limit set at 50. It’s the latest rollback of restrictions since easing started in April.

At the same time, there’s evidence that Swedes have lost faith in their country’s response to the crisis. A poll last week showed that Swedish confidence in the government’s handling of the pandemic plunged by almost 20 percentage points since April, to less than half the population. The figures suggest that political gains Lofven had made between November and May are unlikely to stick.

Lofven’s opponents are now seizing the moment to insist on change. On Sunday, the leader of the populist Sweden Democrats party demanded that Tegnell be fired.

Ebba Busch, leader of the opposition Christian Democrat party, criticized Lofven for a lack of leadership.

“The Swedish government has deliberately allowed a large spread of the disease,” Busch said. “In a difficult crisis, we will always be leaderless as long as this government is in power.”


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