Hunter DuBose is the Managing Partner of Spitfire Capital Advisors. He also conceived and produced Brexit: The Movie.
In his ConservativeHome article yesterday, Bernard Jenkin derided Sweden’s light-touch strategy in response to Covid-19, and mounted a staunch defence of the Government’s ongoing policy of unprecedented and draconian restrictions on our daily lives in its effort to suppress the transmission of the disease.
He is wrong.
It is becoming increasingly evident that Sweden not only got it right, but that the human cost of the UK’s onerous Covid-19 policies will be significantly worse than Covid-19 ever would have been.
Covid-19 has now virtually disappeared in Sweden. The country had among the worst rates of Covid-19 fatalities in the world in April. Now, it’s among the lowest, having fallen over 99 per cent, and with an average of just one death per day over the past week.
What has Sweden done to achieve this? Almost nothing. And that’s the point.
The Swedish government never imposed any lockdowns. Nor has it required the wearing of face masks (and only two per cent of Swedes have worn masks voluntarily, according to a survey published in the New York Times). Offices, schools, restaurants, bars, shops, salons, gyms, and tourist attractions have remained open throughout. Contrary to Jenkin’s suggestion, Sweden did not bring Covid-19 under control using a track and trace system, having abandoned such plans in early March.
The Swedish government did require tables to be spaced farther apart in restaurants and bars, banned public gatherings in excess of 50 people (now relaxed to 500), restricted travel from areas outside of Europe, and shifted colleges and universities to distance learning. It also recommended – but never mandated – that Swedes observe social distancing and minimise domestic travel, and that over-70s should stay at home as much as possible.
Sweden, then, is the closest we have to a control group for light-touch mitigation rather than the UK’s draconian suppression of Covid-19.
And, as the extraordinary reduction in daily deaths there reveals, the virus has now all but burnt itself out naturally. The empirical evidence points exceptionally-strongly to the establishment of herd immunity there. While the UK frets about the potential for a second wave of Covid-19, all indications are that Sweden can now move on and get back to life as normal and business as usual.
But what has been the human cost to Sweden of letting Covid-19 run its course naturally and without significant intervention?
This year’s all-cause mortality rate in Sweden is on track to be the 13th worst of the past 40 years, according to Statistics Sweden (their version of the ONS). In other words, Sweden has experienced a worse death toll every three years, on average. Every individual death – from any cause – is excruciatingly sad. But Covid-19 has had an entirely-unexceptional effect on Sweden’s annual death rate.
Notably, Sweden does not appear to have experienced a significant increase in excess mortality for conditions entirely unrelated to Covid-19 such as cancer, stroke, heart disease and suicide. There have been an estimated 15,000 – 25,000 such deaths in the UK so far, with lockdowns and re-prioritisation of NHS resources cutting off access to urgent, life-saving treatment. A recently-leaked SAGE report predicts up to 75,000 such deaths over the next five years due to delayed treatments and diagnoses. That’s almost twice the current UK Covid-19 death toll.
But, “Aha!” , Bernard Jenkin says: the Swedish population is much healthier and sparser than the UK’s and, therefore, the bar for achieving herd immunity is significantly lower there. Many hundreds of thousands of Britons would have to die in order to achieve the same outcome, he claims.
On this point, again, Jenkin is wrong. And gratuitously so.
The UK is a nation of fatties, he tells us, with 27 per cent of us obese compared to only 20 per cent in super-svelte Sweden, making us more susceptible to the ravages of Covid-19. However, according to ONS data, only 0.9 per cent of Covid-19 mortalities in England and Wales in March and April – when the vast majority of Covid-19 deaths occurred – cited obesity as the main pre-existing condition. Only 1.3 per cent cited obesity as a pre-existing condition at all.
He also claims the higher rate of smoking in the UK, makes us more susceptible to Covid-19. However, the available scientific evidence does not identify smoking as a significant risk factor for Covid-19 and, in fact, suggests that smokers may actually face a lower mortality risk from the disease.
Jenkin simplistically divides population by land mass to conclude, erroneously, that the UK is 11 times more crowded than Sweden, making it significantly easier for the virus to spread from person to person. However, the majority of Sweden is completely empty, with 85 per cent of its population living in dense urban areas. Sweden’s population-weighted density – which adjusts for this – is actually among the highest in Europe and 25 per cent higher than the UK’s, according to a 2015 EU Commission report, with urban areas 60 per cent more dense than the UK’s. (For this same reason, comparisons between Sweden and other, legitimately-sparse Nordic countries are inept).
Jenkin contends that, according to antibody testing by the ONS, fewer than eight per cent of Britons have contracted Covid-19, thus far, and that a further 50 per cent of the UK population would need to become infected in order to establish herd immunity here.
However, recent scientific research from Oxford University, Karolinska Institutet, Duke-NUS Medical School, and La Jolla Institute for Immunology, among others, demonstrates that the prevailing technology for SARS-CoV-2 serology tests provides a wholly incomplete and unreliable picture of the degree of immunity to the virus in the population at large.
This is because they don’t test at all for the presence of the IgA variant of antibodies or of the killer T-cells that, according to the research, play vital roles in the human body’s repertoire of weapons to eradicate the virus.
Indeed, several of these studies indicate that up to 50 per cent of the population already possessed SARS-CoV-2 cross-reactive T-cells – and presumed immunity to Covid-19 – prior to any exposure to the virus, most likely due to previous infection by other coronaviruses, such as those that cause SARS, MERS and variants of the common cold.
Tellingly, a recent analysis by Werlabs in Sweden found that only 14 per cent of a sample population there was positive for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. If Sweden has achieved herd immunity with only 14 per cent of its population testing positive for antibodies, can the UK really be that far behind?
By any reasonable standard, given the available evidence, the Swedish model has achieved vastly superior results and at a significantly lower cost in human lives. The British government should take heed.