STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Swedish senior citizens no longer need to isolate themselves, the government said on Thursday, pointing to lower COVID infection rates than in spring and a growing toll on the mental health of its elderly as behind the new recommendation.
The move to ease the burden on the elderly comes as many countries across Europe are reimposing restrictions to get to grips with surging infections, but the Health Agency has said it does not see evidence of a second wave in Sweden.
Sweden has taken a different approach to most other European countries in fighting the pandemic, relying on voluntary measures to promote social distancing, though it did isolate nursing homes after high levels of deaths among residents.
The number of new cases in the Nordic country has risen steadily in recent weeks though they remain at lower levels relative to the size of the population than in many countries in Europe, where new records are being set daily.
Sweden has seen around 107,000 cases in total and roughly 5,900 deaths. It registered 975 new cases on Wednesday and seven additional deaths, far lower than during the spring peak but still well above the case load during summer.
"The Public Health Agency has decided that the elderly and those in special risks groups will be subject to the same recommendations as the rest of the population," Health Minister Lena Hallengren told reporters.
Overall, COVID-19 deaths have been many times higher than in its Nordic neighbours, but lower than in some countries that adopted tougher restrictions, such as Spain and Britain.
Until now, those over 70 have been told to avoid physical contact and public transport and to keep away from shops and other public places, measures officials say brought down infection rates but also had a significant negative impact on the well-being of many elderly.
The agency said that with lower infection rates, better knowledge about how to handle the disease and a health system no longer under the same pressure as during the spring, the elderly should now follow the general advice to all Swedes.
This includes avoiding large gatherings, staying home at the first signs of illness and maintaining social distancing.
But Hallengren warned this did not mean a return to normal.
"Daily life cannot be as it was before the pandemic," she said. "But there are many ways of living that are not just surviving."
(Reporting by Simon Johnson; editing by Niklas Pollard and Angus MacSwan)