Sweden has passed a new law giving its government power to enforce lockdown measures in the country, amidst rising coronavirus infections.
A bill was passed on Friday allowing the government temporary power to shut shopping centres and public transport and to fine people who break social distancing rules.
Unlike most European countries Sweden has, up until now, adopted mainly voluntary measures to limit the spread of the virus, partly because the government lacked wide-reaching legal powers to act.
The country never entered a full lockdown, unlike its Nordic neighbours who, as a result, have so far reported fewer cases per capita than Sweden.
However, increased infection rates have seen cases spike and in November more stringent restrictions on its citizens were introduced. Gatherings of more than eight people were banned, but the government could only impose the restrictions on public events as Swedish law meant that the guidance was optional for private events.
The new law will give the government more power so it can restrict shop opening times and, if necessary, shut private businesses and public transport, and limit the number of people in public spaces like parks and beaches.
The new laws are the strictest measures yet for the country. However, authorities will not be able to impose curfews or a domestic travel ban under the new legislation.
"This is first and foremost about measures to hinder the spread of the virus, but without imposing unnecessary limits on things that can be done without risking infection," health and social affairs minister Lena Hallengren said during a parliamentary debate on Friday as politicians ended their Christmas breaks early to debate the measures.
Sweden registered 12,536 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, covering the period since 5 January, Health Agency statistics showed. Deaths now total 9,262, a rate per capita several times higher than that of its Nordic neighbours', but lower than in many European countries that opted for lockdowns.
During the debate about the new law, the government was widely criticised for being too slow in seeking broader measures to fight the second wave of infections.
It had originally proposed the new powers would come into force in March, but moved up the timetable to 10 January as health services came under renewed strain.
Sweden has been widely criticised for its more relaxed response to the spread of coronavirus, and its failure to protect the elderly during the first wave of the pandemic.
Elderly care residents died in their thousands unnecessarily, an official commission said.
Shortcomings in the nation’s elderly care system combined with inadequate steps taken by the government and agencies contributed towards the high death toll in nursing homes, it found.
The commission said existing structural issues in Sweden’s care system contributed to the high amount of deaths, despite an attempt to ring-fence the elderly off.
Commission chairman Mats Melin said: “The aspect of (the coronavirus strategy) which centered on protecting the elderly failed.
“There is no other way to view the fact that so many died. The government should have taken steps to ensure the elderly care was better prepared for the pandemic.”