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Lockdown supporters cannot bear the thought that Sweden has got it right (Telegraph)

23 August 2020


Telegraph title: Lockdown supporters cannot bear the thought that Sweden has got it right

Telegraph subtitle: An honest appraisal of how the Scandinavian country has fared raises plenty of awkward questions for politicians in the rest of Europe

Date: 9 August 2020

“Sweden has fulfilled the same role during the Covid-19 crisis as Argentina fulfils in every World Cup. It’s the team which everyone – apart from the natives themselves, naturally – wants to get beaten. This has been especially true in the liberal US press, which has taken time off from berating Donald Trump to publish lengthy pieces on the supposed failure of the Swedish approach. “The Swedish government didn’t enforce social distancing,” began the Washington Monthly, for example, in May when Sweden briefly had the world’s highest death rate from the disease. “It’s now paying the price – in lives and GDP.”

Even neighbouring Nordic countries – normally peas in a pod – have taken against Sweden. When Denmark and Norway re-opened their borders to the world they initially left out Sweden. Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, who has acquired a rock star image among some of his countrymen, is seen as a maverick by many abroad.

It’s not hard to see why politicians, officials and many others around the world need Sweden to fail and to fail spectacularly. If the Scandinavian country is not seen to suffer for its failure to lock down its population and close down much of its economy then citizens in other countries are going to start asking awkward questions.

For a while it looked as if Sweden might well fail spectacularly. While other, locked-down countries saw their rates of new infection plummet and gradually unlocked, infections in Sweden remained stubbornly high. Economic projections suggested that Sweden was going to suffer a deep recession anyway. All those needless deaths, it seemed, and Swedes were still going to lose their jobs.

Then came July, and a reminder that lockdown is no long-term solution to a pandemic. Infection rates began to creep up in countries which had locked down – first Spain, then Germany, France, Belgium. Some have been going to into selective second lockdowns. All they had really done by incarcerating their populations for weeks is sweep the virus under the carpet for another day. Sweden, by contrast, has as yet seen no second wave.

see article for diagram

Meanwhile, the Swedish economy has surprised on the upside. Last week, its economy was revealed to have shrunk by 8.6 per cent in the second quarter – cataclysmic by normal standards, of course, yet in the circumstances it counts as a triumph. GDP across the Eurozone shrank by 12 per cent, with Spain’s economy plunging by 18 per cent quarter on quarter. Britain’s GDP figures won’t be out until next Wednesday, but we will be doing very well if we don’t out-shrink Spain. At one point the Office of Budgetary Responsibility was penciling in a 35 per cent plunge for the UK in the second quarter.

There was no way that Sweden, with many of its neighbours’ economies closed, was going to escape without a sharp contraction. Volvo, for example, suffered a 38 per cent fall in sales as showrooms across Europe were closed. Nevertheless, there is an intriguing possibility that Sweden could be just about the only developed country to manage to get through the Covid-19 crisis without technically suffering a recession – defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth.

Alone in Europe, it managed to grow its economy by 0.4 percent in the first quarter. One after another, Swedish companies have produced results which have exceeded expectations. There have been few bankruptcies. What’s more, having kept factories and other workplaces open throughout the crisis, the Swedes have an advantage in the recovery. They don’t have a workforce which has lost the habit of working, which enjoyed weeks off in the spring sunshine and is now reluctant to return.

But was it worth all those deaths? The case against Sweden rests on comparisons with its neighbours, Denmark and Norway. On that basis, Sweden looks to have come off badly – its 571 deaths per million residents seems reckless compared with that of Denmark (106) or Norway (47). But then are Denmark and Norway the right comparators?

Sweden has much more significant urban areas compared with Norway, and it has a high number people who take skiing holidays in the Alps – which seems to have been the seat, or one of the main seats, of Covid-19 in Europe. Significantly, Sweden has a lower death rate than many European countries which did go into full lockdown, such as Italy (582), Spain (610), the UK (683) and Belgium (850).

see article for diagram

But even if Sweden has suffered a relatively high number of deaths to date, that is not the end of the story. As John Giesecke, Sweden’s former chief epidemiologist and adviser to the World Health Organisation (WHO), argued in April we won’t really be able to judge how different countries have performed until the crisis has reached some kind of conclusion, either through a vaccine or the natural decline of the virus. His belief is that, eventually, comparable countries will have similar death rates, but the misery – both health and economic – will be spread out far longer in some than others.

see article for diagram

Were an effective vaccine to become available this autumn, then the suppression strategy proposed in Professor Neil Ferguson’s paper of March 16 and followed by most developed countries, will seem wise. But just how long are governments prepared to suppress their economies? The longer a vaccine takes to arrive – and there is no guarantee that a vaccine will ever be approved, even if early trials have been promising – then the more that the Swedish approach will seem appealing.

The disappointing news from Sweden’s point of view is that antibody tests suggest that the country is still far from achieving herd immunity. The country’s Public Health Agency revealed in June that even in Stockholm, the worst-affected place in the country, only 10 percent of the population had antibodies – way short of the 60 to 80 percent which our own chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, suggested would be needed for herd immunity.

Not all scientists are agreed on this, however. Last week, modelling in a yet-to-be published paper by an international group of scientists led by Gabriella Gomes of Strathclyde University claimed that the 60 percent is only applicable where herd immunity is gained through a vaccine programme given randomly to a population. If a virus is allowed to spread naturally, on the other hand, it will affect the more susceptible people first (people who either have fewer natural defences or who have more contacts).

Once this group has been infected, the virus finds it much harder to spread and herd immunity will be reached at a much lower level – when between 10 and 20 percent of the population have been infected. If that is right, Sweden might be far closer to herd immunity than previously believed.

In the meantime, Sweden finds itself with unfamiliar friends and unfamiliar enemies. Thanks to its generous welfare policies it is more often a country praised on the left and condemned by economic liberals. Now it is now the other way around. Ultimately Sweden might just end up pleasing both groups – if, thanks to a less-damaged economy, it emerges as the only country able to avoid deep welfare cuts.”




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