The great Covid-19 experiment — did Sweden beat us all?

·6-min read
AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images

In Stockholm the descent into winter has already begun. Coats and sweaters are out and the summer, which Swedes take seriously because it is so short, is a distant memory.

As usual, they marked the end of August with the country’s famous crayfish parties, at which heaps of crustaceans are washed down with vodka and drunken singing; then the 20 per cent of Swedes who own a summerhouse shut them up and start to prepare for the long and dark months ahead.

But this year, in one way at least, the turn of the season will feel slightly less bleak.

Last Thursday, the UK Government quietly removed Sweden from its list of countries that needs to quarantine; with a Covid “cases per 100,000” level dramatically lower than England and far beneath the crucial threshold of 20, the UK simply couldn’t justify Sweden being on the quarantine list any longer.

While in the UK the atmosphere is becoming distinctly more anxious, with cases on the rise, new restrictions coming in and Matt Hancock on the television talking about a “second wave”, Sweden is enjoying something of a moment of vindication.

The virus numbers have reached astonishingly low levels. The most common number of Covid-related deaths announced for each day of the past week in Sweden has been zero; the total number in intensive care with Covid in this country of 10 million people is currently 13.

(TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Ima)
(TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Ima)

But it’s been a difficult six months for this Nordic nation, normally used to being uncontroversial and admired by all. Back in March, unlike every other country in the EU, they stuck to their long-standing pandemic plan and declined to introduce a mandatory lockdown in response to Covid-19; immediately the eyes of the world turned on the “Swedish experiment”.

All schools for under-16s remained open, as did bars and restaurants, while events for up to 50 people continued

The authorities encouraged social distancing and recommended that old and vulnerable people shield themselves, but all schools for under-16s remained open, as did restaurants and bars while events of up to 50 people continued.

The rationale given by the architect of the Swedish strategy, state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, was to consider overall public health not just Covid-19, and only introduce measures that were long-term sustainable. Face masks have never been recommended and are almost never seen.

2020 vision: state physician Anders Tegnell (TT NEWS AGENCY/AFP via Getty Images)
2020 vision: state physician Anders Tegnell (TT NEWS AGENCY/AFP via Getty Images)

At first, the strategy seemed to be going badly. The infection quickly took hold in Stockholm (we now know this was because of huge numbers visiting the Italian Alps during the February half-term); many of the large care homes had outbreaks, and already by the end of April deaths per capita in Sweden dramatically exceeded neighbouring Norway and Denmark (although throughout remained less than the UK, Spain, Italy and Belgium).

The UK, having initially supported the Swedish strategy, performed what the Swedes called its “180 degree U-turn” and imposed a lockdown after all. In the eagerness to prove them wrong, even the New York Times dubbed Sweden “the world’s cautionary tale”.

When I interviewed “Professor Lockdown” Neil Ferguson for UnHerd on April 25, whose bleak projections were substantially responsible for the UK’s sudden pivot to lockdown the month before, he clearly thought Sweden was headed towards disaster.

“Sweden is still seeing day-on-day increases in deaths and cases,” he told me. “I think we’re going to see their daily deaths increase day by day. It is clearly a decision for the Swedish government whether they wish to tolerate that.”

A portrait of Anders Tegnell hangs in the entrance to a restaurant to instruct people to wash their hands in Sodermalm (AFP via Getty Images)
A portrait of Anders Tegnell hangs in the entrance to a restaurant to instruct people to wash their hands in Sodermalm (AFP via Getty Images)

But this was yet another prediction that turned out to be wrong. Instead of increasing, the death rates had already started going down by the time of that interview, and they kept doing so.

While June saw an increase in new case numbers, mainly among the young and mainly due to increased testing (rather like we are seeing at the moment in the UK) it never translated into more hospitalisations or deaths. Cases themselves started falling rapidly in July and further in August until we reached last week’s watershed moment.

Not only is Sweden now below the UK, it has fallen beneath its Scandinavian neighbours Denmark and Norway, heralded as “example nations” for their decisive action but now suffering a big surge in case numbers.

Anders Tegnell has become an unlikely celebrity — he has his critics, but his supporters are passionate. His face has even been tattooed onto a young fan’s arm.

Everyone has a theory as to what might or might not be happening in Sweden.

The population density is different, some say; the high number of single households means the virus doesn’t spread, say others; they’re culturally frosty and don’t tend to get too close, goes another popular theory. But the politically explosive possibility, which the Swedish health authorities certainly believe to be true, is that they are reaching a degree of so-called “herd immunity”; in other words that enough people have had the virus and are now immune that it is hard for the virus to spread.

If this is true, the political ramifications are hard to overestimate.

It would mean that lockdowns and masks may be extending, rather than solving, the crisis.

Whatever happens in the coming months in Stockholm, there’s a steadiness and cool-headedness. The consistency of approach makes it unique in Europe. Sweden hasn’t added quarantines, or local lockdowns, or changed the rules at all in the past six months.

So if you want to have a party, or simply want to remember something closer to the “old normal” in the coming months, why not consider Stockholm?

The Stockholm Opera House is going ahead with the premiere of Rufus Wainwright’s rock opera

Flights are cheaper than ever, the bars are open (for table service only) and the Stockholm Opera House is going ahead with the Scandinavian premiere of Rufus Wainright’s rock opera Prima Donna in October.

As the UK heads into a winter of anxiety and more arguments about curfews and Christmas being cancelled, remember Sweden, the liberal country across the North Sea that took a different approach and seems now to be reaping the rewards.

The numbers

10.2 million
Population of Sweden

10.2 million
Population of Sweden

Confirmed Covid cases in Sweden

Daily case numbers at peak in June

Sweden’s coronavirus fatality rate

Total death toll

Current average deaths per day

Tests conducted over the last week

Tests confirmed as positive

  • Freddie Sayers is the executive editor of UnHerd

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