For lockdown sceptics all over the world, Sweden has always been a beacon of hope in the Coronavirus crisis. Early on its leading epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell (pictured), decided the country would shun closing down in favour of “herd immunity”.
Although this strategy attracted huge criticism from the mainstream media, he gained something of a cult appeal back home.
Tegnell’s confidence and conviction made him unique among scientists, as did his claims that other countries had taken the wrong approach. “In the autumn there will be a second wave”, he boldly told reporters, adding that “Sweden will have a high level of immunity”.
Unfortunately for Tegnell, it seems the plan has not quite worked, and the news has been focussed around a radio interview in which he appears to fess up to his mistakes. “Sweden’s Tegnell admits too many died”, runs the headline of the BBC.
Criticism against the country, which has been growing for weeks, was neatly summarised by Matt Gurney yesterday in The National Post, who wrote: “Sweden chose a far more liberal course, and paid for it in lives relative to their peers, but did not escape the economic consequences or achieve herd immunity.”
Indeed, Sweden has seen 450 deaths per million (just over 4,500 actual deaths), compared to Denmark (100), Finland (58) and Norway (44). It is even above Canada, which has 200 deaths per million. Although ConservativeHome has always cautioned against comparing death rates directly – such are the numerous differences between countries – it is not exactly a reassuring snapshot, particularly when Sweden has such a high rate of single person households (i.e. more room to socially distance).
At the same time, there’s little evidence herd immunity is being achieved. Tegnell had expected 40 per cent of people in the capital, Stockholm, to be immune to Covid-19 by the end of May. But modelling by Sweden’s Public Health Agency estimates that “a little more than 20%” have this.
And to top it off, the country has experienced a GDP drop of seven per cent.
So it all seems a bit of a disaster.
But there are two things worth bearing in mind, in analysing the Swedish model.
The first point is that Sweden’s approach wasn’t actually as brazen as its being made out. Although schools for under 16, bars and nightclubs were opened, universities were closed, people were advised to stay 1.5 metres apart and gatherings were limited to 49 people. Research suggests that Swedes voluntarily engaged in social distancing, so while there was no mandated lockdown, there was an unofficial policy.
And fundamentally, Tegnell has not actually backtracked from the government policy. Since Wednesday he has claimed that his words are being overinterpreted, and that it is “not the case” that he and the Swedish Public Health Agency have changed their Coronavirus approach. “We still believe that the strategy is good, but… you can always make it better”, he said.
In this regard he has said that “improving preparedness in elderly care homes, building up more testing capacity earlier on, and possibly not closing schools-for over-16s” would have improved the country’s prospects.
On the schools front, this is interesting – because it’s a reminder that Tegnell has arguably had prophetic moments in the crisis; increasing evidence suggests children are less susceptible to the virus and less likely to pass it on. Tegnell may find himself vindicated here eventually – while others will be berated for shutting down. As he has predicted previously, this crisis will last years – and it is simply too early to judge whether countries had the “right approach”.
Perhaps the biggest lesson of all about Sweden is that there’s a frankness to the conversations their leading has with the nation. Although Tegnell is not a politician, one suspects if Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance ever spoke in such a confessional way it would not go down well.
Whatever the case, Tegnell has said that medical officials would need to learn “what else, besides what we did, you could do without imposing a total shutdown.”
By all indications, Sweden’s strategy goes on…