An expert on the spread of Covid-19 proclaimed last week that the pandemic in Sweden was essentially over — the virus there was “running out of steam,” he said, as researchers suggest Swedes could be building immunity.
Such comments have emboldened governments flirting with the idea of adopting Sweden’s “light-touch” approach, in the hope they can soften the blow to their economies.
There was reason for optimism when Kim Sneppen, from the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, made his comments. Sweden’s infection and death rates had been low for weeks, despite a second wave rolling over Europe. It seemed to mark a turnaround for the country, which experienced one of the highest death tolls in the world per capita during the spring.
The problem is, the science isn’t in on whether immunity is building in Sweden at all, after the country resisted lockdowns and let the virus spread through much of its population.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, nonetheless, announced changes to restrictions in England last week, shaping the country’s Covid-19 response in the image of Sweden’s. Experts in both the UK and Sweden are warning that doing so could be dangerous.
The UK has been experiencing record high numbers in daily infections, yet Johnson tightened restrictions only slightly, placing more emphasis on personal responsibility to prevent viral transmission, as Swedish authorities have done. The most significant change to the rules is a 10 p.m. curfew for pubs, bars and restaurants, forcing them to close just an hour earlier than they typically did. Now only table service is allowed, to avoid people lining up at bars to order food and drinks, as is the case in Sweden.
As most of the Western world went into lockdown over the spring, Sweden’s response was an outlier. It only issued advice to its citizens to practice social distancing and personal hygiene. Sweden typically doesn’t mix public health and politics, and it doesn’t typically use the law to influence behavior to protect people’s health. So it kept open its bars and restaurants, as well as schools for under-16s, as other countries had them shuttered.
But even Swedish officials admit that their strategy failed to protect care homes, where nearly half of the country’s deaths were confirmed. More than 5,800 people have died from Covid-19 so far in Sweden, a country of around 10 million people.
While UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has insisted that likening the UK’s new measures to Sweden’s is a mischaracterization, a Downing Street spokesperson confirmed to CNN that the Prime Minister took advice from the architect of Sweden’s response, Anders Tegnell, just two days before he announced his Swedish-style changes.
“The Prime Minister canvassed a wide variety of scientific opinions over the weekend and on Sunday he took evidence from a number of scientists, which he used to formulate the package of measures he introduced,” the spokesperson said. “It was an opportunity for people to give advice freely.”
Herd immunity debate resurfaces
It’s too soon to declare victory in Sweden, and even officials in the country are making clear