STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Sweden's government on Thursday proposed expanding its legal powers to close businesses and shut parts of society should a third wave of the novel coronavirus hit the country, though it said it saw no need to impose the curbs as yet.
Sweden has avoided the kind of strict lockdowns adopted across much of Europe since last spring, but has gradually tightened restrictions, especially after infections surged in autumn last year.
Parliament has already passed a pandemic law to give authorities widespread powers to shut malls and shopping centres, but the government said it now wanted to be able to close hairdressers, gyms and other businesses should Sweden be hit by a new surge in COVID-19 infections
"The decision today is not that we are going to shut down Sweden, but that we are giving ourselves the tools to respond should such a situation develop," Health and Social Affairs Minister Lena Hallengren told a news conference.
Worries about a third wave have risen in recent days as the rate of new infections has inched higher after falling since the end of last year.
Sweden has also seen an increase in the so-called British mutation of the virus, thought to be more contagious than other variants, and vaccinations has been slow to ramp up amid delivery delays.
Hallengren said the government might need to act quickly, even though the current increase in new cases did not warrant it. "Currently, that is not our judgement, but clearly we are not planning to wait until it is too late," she added.
Sweden, with a population of around 10 million, has registered more than 615,000 COVID cases and over 12,400 deaths, a rate per capita many times higher than that of its Nordic neighbours, but lower than several European countries that opted for lockdowns.
(Reporting by Simon Johnson; editing by Niklas Pollard)