Face mask sales soar as Swedes eye potential guideline change

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Sweden is seeing a spike in demand for face masks, several drug stores said, ahead of a possible U-turn by the authorities, who have so far doubted their effectiveness in fighting the spread of the new coronavirus.

FILE PHOTO: A woman wearing a face mask is seen in a bus stop next to an information sign asking people to keep social distance due to the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Stockholm, Sweden June 26, 2020. Stina Stjernkvist/ TT News Agency/via REUTERS

Unlike most other European countries, Sweden has kept many businesses, restaurants and most schools open, while not recommending the use of face masks, which remain a rare sight unlike in neighbouring Denmark, Norway and Finland.

But after the public health agency (FHM) said two weeks ago that it may issue new recommendations, Swedes appear to be stockpiling.

Face mask sales at online pharmacist Apotea have increased to around 400,000 units a week in the past two to three weeks from 150,000 in previous weeks, CEO Par Svardson said.

At drug store Apoteket, with total annual sales around 20 billion crowns ($2.32 billion), face mask sales have jumped about 30% in the same weeks, to weekly levels equivalent to an entire year’s turnover, according to a spokesman.

“It feels like FHM, from their previous hard line of saying ‘no’, are now open to looking at saying ‘yes’,” Svardson said, adding he would expect a five- to tenfold increase in face mask sales in the event of a change in recommendations over their use.

Sweden has so far rejected recommending or making mandatory the use of face masks in some public spaces, as many countries in Europe have done. Health Agency chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has said they have little proven effect and could lead to a false sense of security among wearers.

But health agency director-general Johan Carlson told a press conference on Aug. 18 that there may be situations - such as doctor and dentist visits and on public transport - where face mask recommendations could be issued.

Sweden’s death toll relative to its population has far outstripped those of its neighbours although it remains lower than in some European countries that adopted strict lockdowns such as Britain and Spain.

(The story corrects Apoteket annual sales to around 20 billion SEK in par 5.)

Reporting by Helena Soderpalm; Editing by Hugh Lawson