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Finland's continued travel restrictions ruffle feathers in Sweden

The epidemic has hit Sweden harder than its Nordic and Baltic neighbours.

Kuvassa ihmiset pelaavat shakkia tukholmalaisessa puistossa.
File photo of people playing chess at a park in Stockholm on May 29, 2020, amid the coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic. Image: Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP

Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said on Friday that relations between Finland and Sweden remained strong, despite his country's decision to keep coronavirus-related travel restrictions on its Nordic neighbour in place.

On Thursday, Finland announced plans to lift travel restrictions on several Nordic and Baltic countries next week, but due to the coronavirus situation there, Sweden was not included on that list.

Swedish interior minister Mikael Damberg told Svenska Yle the decision was disappointing and caused some concern among those affected, but said it would not deteriorate overall relations between the two countries.

Starting Monday 15 June, border controls are to be lifted on travel between Finland and Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Denmark, Norway and Iceland. In effect, the move will make travel possible to these countries without a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival.

"Unfortunately, the epidemic situation in Sweden is so bad that we cannot lift the restrictions regarding Sweden," Finnish interior minister Maria Ohisalo said at a government press conference Thursday. "But Sweden remains an important country to us and we will lift the restrictions as soon as it is possible," she added.

Different situations, strategies

The epidemic has hit Sweden harder than Finland, as well as other countries in the region.

So far, Sweden has reported more than 46,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, while Finland has diagnosed just over 7,000. Meanwhile, Finland's Covid death toll reached 325 by Thursday, compared to Sweden's running tally of 4,800. The Swedish statistics are from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center and the Finnish figures are drawn from the Institute for Health and Welfare (THL).

In Stockholm - Sweden's hardest-hit area- there were 252 new confirmed Covid-19 cases reported on Thursday, with 79 people in intensive care units and an additional 451 people in hospital receiving treatment for the illness, according to national broadcaster SVT.

As of Friday in Finland, there were 9 new confirmed coronavirus infections and there were 25 patients in the hospital, four of whom were receiving intensive care.

In an interview with Yle on Friday morning, Haavisto noted that Sweden has been somewhat taken aback by Finland's restrictions in general, such as the weeks-long isolation of the Uusimaa region, which started on 27 March and ended on 19 April.

"Finland's decisions were rather unique compared to other Nordic countries, but it seems that the restrictions helped to curb the pandemic, now we know more," Haavisto said.

Haavisto said there was no reason to believe Finland's cooperation with Sweden was in danger, noting that there has been a good deal of cooperation between the two countries, such as allowing Swedish nursing personnel to travel from Finland to Sweden.

Cooperation to continue

The Swedish interior ministry has noted that Finland's border policies could potentially jeopardise Nordic cooperation, saying it hoped discriminatory decisions among Nordic countries would be avoided.

On Friday, Haavisto said he explained to his Swedish counterpart, Ann Linden, how Finland had reached its decision, saying that the main reason behind it was how the epidemic was developing in Sweden.

"The situation is reviewed every couple of weeks and we would be happy to [lift travel restrictions] for Swedish traffic as well. Yes, this is certainly understood on both sides of the border," Haavisto said.

Sweden has not issued travel restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic, according to Damberg.

"It should be noted that [travel within the Nordic region] is important for the tourism industry and for our economy. But everyone in Sweden, even visitors, should follow recommendations and rules regarding Covid-19," Damberg said.

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