STEFAN Löfven, the Swedish Prime Minister, has announced he will pass a law to ban public gatherings of eight people or more due to the coronavirus outbreak.
‘Do your duty,’ he said. ‘Do not go to the gym, do not go to the library, do not have parties. Do not come up with excuses that would make your activity OK. It is your and my choices – every single day, every single hour, every single moment – that will now determine how we manage this.’
This shift in strategy to a nationally enforced ‘Rule of 8’ does not appear to have the backing of state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who has said he wants to use the same no-lockdown approach for the ‘second wave’ as he did for the first.
Perhaps the prime minister is listening instead to Fredrik Elgh, Professor of Virology at Umeå University, who recently claimed Sweden is two weeks away from surpassing the first wave’s peak hospitalisations. Has he not noticed that ICU admissions are currently in decline? And does he not recall that the health service coped fine in the spring?
Professor Elgh also noted that lockdowns appear to have worked in Belgium and the Czech Republic. But it’s cherry-picking data to look just at two countries where a decline happened to coincide with restrictions.
What about the fact that Sweden’s first wave declined with no lockdown, while in the UK the R rate dropped below 1 before lockdown both in the spring and in the autumn?
Why is the country introducing lockdown measures now, when there is nothing to indicate an autumn out of the ordinary? It may be because Sweden had hoped to have a milder autumn surge than it is experiencing.
But that disappointment doesn’t change the basic parameters, which is that Covid has not been responsible for more than a medium to severe flu season anywhere, whatever restrictions have been applied.
The graph below illustrates this point perfectly, showing Sweden’s 2019-2020 flu season death toll scarcely higher than earlier years. Not locking down does not result in a death toll much beyond the normal range, and most of those who die are already past the average life expectancy.
All-cause deaths in Sweden in October–May (not adjusted for population)
Lockdown zealots have recently taken to arguing that Sweden is so different to the UK and the rest of Europe that its example is of no practical relevance.
They claim, for example, that Sweden has lower population density than the UK. But they fail to mention that most of it is empty space and that Sweden is in fact a more urbanised country than the UK –87.7 per cent vs 83.4 per cent. They also omit to note that the capital, Stockholm, has a similar population density to London.
They argue that Sweden has more single-occupancy households (39 per cent vs 28 per cent), but fail to mention that that translates to 17.8 per cent and 15 per cent of the population respectively, so isn’t really significant.
They also argue that Swedes are a more naturally compliant people who studiously follow all the guidance, so don’t need coercive rules. However, Stockholm in April was notorious for young people crowding into nightclubs and cafes while the rest of the world locked down.
Immunologist Marcus Buggert, of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, was quoted in the British Medical Journal in September as saying social distancing in Sweden was ‘always poorly followed, and it’s only become worse’. Conversely, Brits have been surprisingly conformist (and fearful of the virus), especially in the first lockdown.
In terms of the unfavourable comparison of Sweden to the death rates of its neighbours, that appears to be largely a result of a run of mild flu seasons in the country, leaving more ‘dry tinder’ (older people vulnerable to respiratory infections), which is why 70 per cent of Covid deaths in Sweden occurred in nursing homes.
What a shame that the chin-wobbling Swedish politicians seem at this late stage to have developed a hunger for locking down.
Whatever restrictions they now impose though, Sweden remains an important demonstration of what happens when a country refuses to lock down. Sweden may not want to heed the lessons of its own example, but others can.