A person wearing a protective mask collects coronavirus self tests from people in cars at a testing site in the car park of Svagertorp railway station, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Malmo, Sweden, on Nov 27, 2020. [Photo/Agencies]

Sweden will begin to ease some of its COVID-19 restrictions on Tuesday despite having one of Europe’s highest infection rates for the novel coronavirus.

The Scandinavian nation was the only European Union country not to lockdown during the initial stages of the outbreak last year, and has opted for mostly voluntary or non-coercive measures throughout the crisis.

New cases and the number of people being admitted to intensive care are now declining quickly, as a third wave of the virus wanes and more people are vaccinated, the government said.

Sweden’s health agency on Thursday reported 1,366 new cases, the lowest number of new daily cases for more than seven months. The country has now registered a total 1,068,473 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 14,451 associated deaths.

Just two weeks ago Sweden was the worst-affected nation in Europe, and now has the second-highest number of new cases per capita on the continent, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

Despite this, it has fared better than much of Europe on hospitalizations and mortality, the Financial Times noted.

The FT said that Sweden’s economy recovered to pre-pandemic levels in the first quarter, which is “a quicker pace than most of the EU”.

Opening hours for restaurants and cafes will now be extended, and rules will change for the number of spectators allowed at sports events and for visitors to museums and amusement parks.

“It’s not much easing,” said Karin Tegmark Wisell, deputy state epidemiologist, quoted in the FT.

“It’s not until we … have a stable lower number of new cases, lower pressure on healthcare, and a higher number of vaccinees that we can go into a new phase where we look into easing in a truer way,” she added.

Wisell said Sweden’s infection rate remained high because of how the virus “hit” there compared with other nations in Europe.

“We were late going into the second wave and late into the third wave, and now we’re seeing we’re late coming out of the third wave. So I don’t think it is very unexpected,” she said.

A second stage of easing, possibly early in July, would include raising the limit on numbers allowed at private and public gatherings, and for larger audiences at sporting and cultural events, Reuters News agency reported. No date has been set for the full lifting of restrictions.

Prime Minister Stefan Lofven told a News conference last week, “the message is not that the pandemic is over … even if things are getting better. Rather, it’s how we behave now and in the future that will determine whether we can further ease restrictions or not”.

He added: “We are beginning to glimpse the beginning of the end.”

Sweden’s former chief epidemiologist, Annika Linde, has warned against easing too quickly. Quoted by the FT, she said: “What was missed in Sweden in my opinion was early strictness. It’s what you do early that decides what happens afterwards.”