Coronavirus: Health agency chief of Sweden says death toll 'came as a surprise' despite no lockdown

The chief of Sweden's health agency says the country's mounting death toll "came as a surprise" despite no lockdown being implemented.

Sweden has come under fire for not putting a lockdown in place, with the death toll now 10th highest in the world per capita.

Health agency chief epidemiologist Dr Anders Tegnell says Sweden has closed down parts of society rather than shut the whole country.

"I think that has had a great effect in many ways. It has enabled our health system to keep on functioning," Dr Tegnell told The Daily Show with Trevor Noah this week.

"We have used sort of what we normally use in Sweden when it comes to public health and that's really telling people to take responsibility, and do the things they think would fit them the best."

Sweden's death rate per 100,000 people is 27.2 compared to neighbour Denmark where it's three times lower, and in Finland and Norway it's more than six times lower.

While it is still much better than the UK, it's 66 times higher than New Zealand's.

"We never really calculated with a high death toll initially," he told The Daily Show.

"The death toll really came as a surprise to us."

He said COVID-19 was affecting different parts of the country differently. Dr Tegnell told The Daily Show a large number of people in Stockholm - the country's capital - had become ill.

"I think we are up to about a quarter of the population that's been affected so far," he said.

"I'm not saying we were successful in all different ways and I mean, our death rate is something we really worry a lot about."

On Wednesday, a Kiwi physio living in Sweden defended the country's approach to the pandemic.

"The approach Sweden is taking is fairly bold but no one knows what's going to work best do they," said Luke Burgess, originally from Whanganui.