Anders Tegnell
© NAINA HELEN JAMA/TT
Anders Tegnell said it was Swedish tradition to “give a lot of responsibility to individuals”
The epidemiologist in charge of Sweden's coronavirus response has dismissed the scientific evidence for mask-wearing as "astonishingly weak" and suggested that making face coverings mandatory could backfire.

Anders Tegnell, the face of his country's distinctive light-touch approach to Covid-19, said it was "very dangerous" to believe that facemasks on their own could control the spread of the disease.

He also conceded that Sweden had failed to protect its old people's homes against the virus but said the number of new infections in the care sector had dwindled away to a negligible level since the height of the outbreak four months ago.

Dr Tegnell has steered a markedly different course from those plotted by most other European countries, leaving bars, restaurants and most schools open throughout the pandemic.

His public health agency has maintained that there is no need for Swedes to wear facemasks even in crowded public spaces such as trains or shops, although they are recommended in most of the country's larger airport terminals.

This stands in contrast to the policies in nations such as the UK and Germany, which have slowly come round to the conclusion that facemasks help to limit coronavirus transmission, and Spain and Poland, which for a time made them compulsory outside the home.

However, Dr Tegnell said these decisions were not grounded in solid science. "The findings that have been produced through [the use of] facemasks are astonishingly weak, even though so many people around the world wear them," he told Bild, the German newspaper.

"I'm surprised that we don't have more or better studies showing what effect masks actually have. Countries such as Spain and Belgium have made their populations wear masks but their infection numbers have still risen. The belief that masks can solve our problem is in any case very dangerous."

The Swedish strategy has followed the two central principles that the coronavirus pandemic will be around for longer than any lockdown and that the only viable answer in the long run is to trust people to make sensible decisions for themselves.

"It is a Swedish tradition that we give a lot of responsibility to individuals and influence them," Dr Tegnell said. "So we never saw any reason to take more drastic measures."

As of today Sweden had recorded 5,763 Covid-19 deaths, more than the other Scandinavian countries put together. Yet the death rate has fallen from a peak of nearly 100 a day in mid-April to one or two a day in early August. The number of new infections also remains on a downward trajectory.