Coronavirus: Sweden finally accepts face masks can work, brings in more restrictions

Sweden has finally joined most of the rest of the world in recommending its citizens wear masks, but only on public transport during rush hour.

The Scandinavian nation - one of the few countries in the world with a major COVID-19 outbreak that hasn't tried a lockdown - has in recent months increasingly adopted measures to control the spread of the virus.

Its health bosses have repeatedly doubted the effectiveness of masks, which most experts say are key to preventing people carrying the virus - perhaps asymptomatically - from infecting others. 

"It is very dangerous to believe face masks would change the game when it comes to COVID-19," chief epidemiologist at Sweden's Public Health Agency Anders Tegnell said in August.

"Face masks can be a complement to other things when other things are safely in place. But to start with having face masks and then think you can crowd your buses or your shopping malls - that's definitely a mistake."  

But the Prime Minister no longer thinks so, unveiling new measures on Friday afternoon that included a recommendation that people on public transport at busy times wear masks.

Stefan Löfven also introduced lower limits on restaurant capacities and a ban on alcohol sales after 8pm, local media reported. Employers have been told to let staff work from home for another five weeks, and all non-essential public services have been closed immediately. 

Sweden's government says the law doesn't allow it to enforce the recommendations, instead relying on the public to do the right thing. There are no sanctions for those who don't comply. 

Johan Carlson, director-general of the Public Health Agency, told Swedes wouldn't be told to wear masks in public more generally.

"It could hamper our efforts to contain the disease, because face masks will replace social distancing. And I think this has been a very common phenomenon out in the world... if you look at North America for example, where a lot of focus has been on face masks, very little focus has been on big gatherings of people there. 

"Whether they're wearing face masks or not is not the big thing; big gatherings are the problem. So we're trying to focus very thoroughly on what's important."

Sweden has had nearly 8000 deaths from COVID-19, and is in the midst of a growing second wave of infections. In contrast, neighbouring Norway has had just 404 deaths, Finland 489 and Denmark 1007.

Earlier this week Sweden's king said the country's relaxed approach had caused its people to "suffer tremendously".