Swedish PM sees “beginning of the end”, eases COVID restrictions next week

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Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Lofven arrives for a face-to-face EU summit in Brussels, May 24, 2021. Olivier Hoslet/Pool via REUTERS

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STOCKHOLM, May 27 (Reuters) - Sweden will ease some of its COVID-19 restrictions from June 1 as new cases have fallen sharply in recent weeks, the government said on Thursday, as it presented a roadmap to open up society.

Sweden has been an outlier in the fight against the pandemic and has opted against full lockdowns, instead relying on mostly voluntary measures. It has been hit by a severe third wave of the virus but fresh cases and the number of people being admitted to intensive care are declining quickly.

"We are beginning to glimpse the beginning of the end," Prime Minister Lofven told a news conference.

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The previously announced easing includes longer opening hours for restaurants and cafes, as well as raising the number of spectators at sports events and visitors at museums and amusement parks.

"We are now seeing a sharp reduction in the spread of infection in almost all of Sweden," Swedish Health Agency head Johan Carlson said. "These are declines of 30-40 percent in the last week. That is very close to what we presented in our most optimistic scenario a month ago," he said.

The remaining rules and recommendations will be eased in five steps with the aim to have all of them wound down by September. The voluntary guidelines include asking citizens to work from home, wearing masks in certain situations and to keep social interactions as low as possible.

Binding rules have included curbs on restaurant opening hours, limiting the number of people in shops and malls and effectively closing museums, public pools and amusement parks.

Sweden registered 1,366 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, health agency statistics showed, the lowest number of new daily cases for more than seven months, though the agency said the figures could be revised because of a technical error.

The country has administered 4.9 million vaccine shots, with 44.3% of the adult population having received one dose. Some 15.7% are fully vaccinated.

Fifteen new deaths were registered, taking the total to 14,451 out of a population of 10 million. The deaths registered have occurred over several days and sometimes weeks.

Sweden has had among the highest number of cases per capita in recent months, but the number of deaths from the pandemic this year has been at the lower end of the scale in Europe.

The total death toll during the pandemic has been higher than in other Nordic countries but lower than in most European countries that opted for lockdowns.

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Reporting by Johan Ahlander, editing by Helena Soderpalm

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