Many strange things happened in 2020, but one of the strangest was the romance between Britain’s Covid-sceptics and Sweden. It turned out to be an ill-fated one, ending in tragedy, but it was intense while it lasted.
For much of this year, those who object to measures to control the virus have hailed Sweden as a libertarian paradise, supposedly showing us how Covid-19 could be kept under control without intrusive government restrictions.
Of late, these champions have fallen silent. It’s not hard to explain why. Recent days have seen Sweden’s Nordic neighbours Finland and Norway offering emergency medical assistance as Stockholm’s hospitals have been overwhelmed, infections and deaths have spiked dramatically upward, and the King of Sweden has made an unprecedented criticism of the government’s bungled strategy.
Unprecedented, but hardly surprising: Sweden has suffered a death rate that is roughly ten times that of neighbouring Norway and nine times that of Finland. A searing government report concluded the state had failed to protect the vulnerable. Mats Persson, a former UK government adviser, said of his home country: “For a social model largely designed around the state levelling the odds and caring for the vulnerable, this will leave a very difficult moral legacy.”
Sweden was praised to the skies by Covid-sceptics. In May, Sherelle Jacobs wrote in the Daily Telegraph that “the more time goes on, the more Sweden looks like a success story… Sweden is in a much stronger long-term position than lockdown countries.” Meanwhile, Christopher Snowdon of the Institute of Economic Affairs told us that Sweden had demonstrated “a more sensible way to balance risk, liberty and the economy”.
To understand the magnitude of what’s gone wrong, it’s worth noting that Sweden started the pandemic with several huge advantages. First, it’s a far less urban nation than the UK,for example, and the virus spreads much more rapidly in dense, built-up areas. While the UK has 273 people per square kilometre, Sweden has just 25.
Second, Sweden has the highest rate of people living alone in the world: 42.5 per cent of households are single people, compared to just 29.9 per cent in the UK. Obviously, it’s much easier for the virus to spread within the home, and places with large, multigenerational households suffer most.
To form an idea of the consequences that would have followed if the UK had followed the Swedish model, you would need to compare Sweden’s outcomes to its similar neighbours. Given the country’s death rate is ten times higher, imagine the chaos we’d have seen if we had multiplied the UK death rate by a factor of ten.
Nor has there been an economic upside for Sweden: in fact, they saw a bigger hit to their economy than their neighbours, as well as much worse health outcomes. The Swedish virologist Lena Einhorn concluded: “Sweden’s strategy has proven to be a dramatic failure.”
This matters, not only because health and lives are in danger, but also because the Swedish experiment reveals the failures of the underlying theories of Covid-sceptics.
Sweden’s controversial state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell predicted in the summer that because the country had a high rate of infection in the spring, it would have “a high level of immunity and the number of cases [in the winter] will probably be quite low”.
We now know he was disastrously wrong. But he wasn’t alone; his theory was exactly the same as that still relied upon by the UK’s Covid-sceptics.
Sunetra Gupta, a lead author of the “Great Barrington Declaration”, promised in May that, in the UK, “the epidemic has largely come and is on its way out in this country… due to the build-up of immunity”. One leading Covid-sceptic, Michael Yeadon, wrote that thanks to “prior immunity”, “the pandemic is effectively over.”
It’s these same failed theories that still lead Covid-sceptics to argue it is safe to let the virus rip and attempt to shelter the old and vulnerable.
One baffling feature of 2020 was that so much energy was wasted puffing up Sweden, while countries such as Australia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and New Zealand revealed to us genuinely successful models based on hard suppression of the virus with decisive action: all suffered a fraction of the European average rate of coronavirus cases.
There is, of course, no scope for triumphalism here. But when we look for models to learn from, it isn’t Swedish lessons we need. The better lesson is the simpler one, taught by our antipodean cousins: wallop the virus as hard as you can.