Sweden not ready to lift COVID restrictions, but PM says end in sight

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STOCKHOLM (Reuters) -Sweden, which has shunned lockdowns throughout the pandemic, will postpone a tentative plan to ease some COVID-19 restrictions, due to the ongoing high levels of new infections, the government said on Thursday.

Sweden is experiencing a third wave of the virus and the number of patients being treated in intensive care is at the highest level since the spring of last year.

"When the strain on healthcare eases and the spread of infection drops, only then will the government be ready to start lifting restrictions," Prime Minister Stefan Lofven told a news conference. "But we are not there yet."

The restrictions will be prolonged until mid-May and mean restaurants will have to close at 8.30 pm and that shops and malls can only let in limited numbers of customers. Sport venues and public pools will remain effectively closed to visitors.

Lofven pleaded with people to hold out for a while longer, but said that the vaccination programme meant there was light at the end of the tunnel.

"We are, perhaps, seeing the beginning of the end," he said.

More than two million, or roughly a quarter, of all adult Swedes have now received at least one shot of vaccine.

Sweden registered 7,736 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday and 19 new deaths, taking the total deaths to 13,882.

The Health Agency said that cases reported so far this week had been lower than the previous week, but that it was too early to say whether the trend would continue.

Sweden's death rate per capita is many times higher than that of its Nordic neighbours' but lower than in most European countries that opted for lockdowns.

(Reporting by Johan Ahlander; editing Niklas Pollard and Simon Johnson)