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Swedish universities brace for second lockdown

Some institutions start partial restrictions to reduce high infection rates

As a second wave of Covid-19 infections is sweeping through Sweden, many universities have gone into partial lockdown.

Cases of Covid-19 infection are spreading quickly through the Stockholm region. Last week, approximately 42,000 people were tested for Covid-19 and of these, as many as 20.3 per cent were infected, according to Stockholm’s health authority.

Sweden’s national Public Health Authority has responded by placing 13 of the country’s 21 administrative regions under localised restrictions. As a result, most of the country’s universities have told students and staff to work from home if possible, and to avoid any gatherings with people with whom they do not normally associate.

Umeå University released a statement saying that “internal and external meetings, internships, conferences, seminars, and visits must be carried out digitally, or alternatively postponed or cancelled”. The Karolinska Institute, recommends that students and staff “should work from home and cancel business trips except in absolute exceptional cases”.

At present, the tighter restrictions are scheduled to end on 8 December, leaving students with around two more weeks of on-campus activities before universities break up for Christmas.

But such measures are not considered adequate across the board. Fredrik Sund, a senior epidemiologist in Uppsala, the first region to introduce stricter local measures, called for a nationwide lockdown. Sund said that recommendations for stronger action had not been followed.

“With the rapid spread of infection, it’s like Sweden is in free fall,” he told national TV station SVT. “We have the chance [to introduce tighter restrictions] now, because in a few weeks it will be pointless.”

Lena Hallengren, minister for health and social affairs, responded by saying that Sweden was already “on the way to shutting down large parts of our society” by implementing the local restrictions.

Meanwhile, some of the blame for the increase in infections was placed on Sweden’s students. In October, higher education minister Matilda Ernkrans said she had seen evidence that a number of student parties had resulted in local Covid-19 spikes.

“Unfortunately, there are far too many of you who are not taking responsibility and you need to get a grip,” she said, addressing students directly. “We can’t have universities becoming coronavirus transmission clusters.”

However, the Public Health Authorities stringent recommendations are not legally enforceable across the country. Sweden’s constitution does not permit the declaration of a state of emergency—which would permit government-imposed restrictions—during peacetime.

In April, the government was granted powers by parliament to impose more severe lockdown measures such as school and retail closures, although the law expired in July without being used.

But while the enactment of that law made it clear Sweden could enforce a much stricter lockdown, the head of the Public Health Authority, Anders Tegnell, said that such a draconian approach could only be implemented for a short period of time before people would become bored and start flouting the restrictions.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe