Sweden steps up pandemic restrictions in bid to avoid third wave

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Passengers wearing protective masks enter an underground railway station, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Stockholm, Sweden, January 7, 2021. Jessica Gow/TT News Agency/via REUTERS

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STOCKHOLM, Feb 24 (Reuters) - The Swedish government said on Wednesday it would reduce opening hours for all restaurants, bars and cafes as well as tighten limits on the number of people allowed in shops as it seeks to ward off a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The government said it would propose that restaurants and cafes would have to close at 8:30 p.m. from March 1. It adds to a previous ban of alcohol sales after 8 p.m. already in place.

It also said the number of people allowed in shops and malls would be further restricted and that it would provide further details about this measure shortly.

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"The situation in Sweden is serious, we have a high spread of infection and it is increasing," Prime Minister Stefan Lofven told a news conference. "We can avoid a third wave if we keep distance."

It also said all sport competitions below elite level, and for children born before 2006, would be suspended indefinitely.

Concerns about a possible third wave of the pandemic have been growing in Sweden in recent weeks as the number of new infections has risen, although deaths have come down significantly.

Sweden registered 5,371 new cases on Wednesday, the highest daily increase since early January. On Tuesday, the Health Agency warned the British variant, thought to be more infectious, was gradually taking over as the dominant one in Sweden. [nL8N2KT4MA}

Several of Sweden's largest regions have also tightened recommendations for the use of masks in shops, workplaces and public transport. On Wednesday, the Swedish parliament urged all people in the building to wear masks, the first time during the pandemic such a recommendation was issued.

This is at odds with the health agency's past reluctance to broadly endorse such moves because of limited evidence of their efficacy.

The centre-left government has gradually tightened restrictions since late last year after keeping most schools, restaurants and businesses open through the pandemic and relying primarily on voluntary measures.

Sweden, a country of 10 million people, has registered 12,793 deaths from COVID-19. The death rate per capita is much higher than its Nordic neighbours' but lower than in several countries in Europe that opted for lockdowns.

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Reporting by Johan Ahlander and Niklas Pollard

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