‘I thought people could handle this themselves’: Architect of Sweden’s anti-lockdown Covid strategy claims softer approach was ‘misunderstood’ in eye-opening pandemic diaries book
- Dr Anders Tegnell’S plans saw no lockdowns, school closures or mask mandates
- But he said the country was not a ‘libertarian paradise’ or a ‘passive approach’
Sweden’s anti-lockdown Covid policy was incorrectly viewed as a ‘passive approach’, according to the chief architect of the controversial approach.
Dr Anders Tegnell, former state epidemiologist who spearheaded plans that saw no lockdowns, school closures or mask mandates, said the country was not a ‘libertarian paradise’.
Instead, the scientist, who today released a book reflecting on the pandemic, said he believed people could deal with the pandemic themselves — noting that the country saw ‘huge compliance’ with its advice even though it didn’t ‘force anyone’.
However, Dr Tegnell warned that there’s ‘lots more work to be done’ ahead of the next pandemic, which will likely strike ‘within the next few decades’.
Sweden became an international outlier in 2020 when it refused to follow the rest of the world in shutting down society to curb the virus’ spread. Instead, its government relied on citizens’ sense of civic duty to protect the population.
Dr Anders Tegnell, former state epidemiologist who spearheaded plans that saw no lockdowns, school closures or mask mandates, said the country was not a ‘libertarian paradise’
Due to differences in logging data, comparisons between countries are difficult. However, figures from Oxford University platform Our World in Data suggests Sweden (blue line) is doing better than its European peers. It has logged 2,370 deaths per million people compared to the 2,769 per million average for the European Union by late October. For comparison, the UK has logged 3,421 per million (red line)
Authorities advised residents to practice social distancing, however schools, bars and restaurants remained open and it never required people to wear masks — they were only recommended on public transport during the second wave.
Among its stricter measures included a ban on visits to elderly care homes and limits on the number of people attending public gatherings.
Dr Tegnell consistently denied ‘herd immunity’ was the aim of the approach, arguing that more restrictive measures were not effective enough to justify their impact on society.
The approach gave rise to a heated debate abroad, and was at times held up as a cautionary tale, or on the contrary, hailed by opponents of lockdowns.
His approach earned praise from the libertarian right in the UK and US as well as the social democratic centre-left in Sweden.
He became a cult figure in the country, with people getting tattoos of his face and waving banners with his name.
READ MORE: Matt Hancock ‘wanted to play God during Covid’: Ex-NHS chief Sir Simon Stevens reveals former Health Secretary pushed to ‘decide who should live and who should die’ if hospitals became overwhelmed
Lord Stevens’s witness statement said: ‘The secretary of state for health and social care took the position that in this situation he – rather than, say, the medical profession or the public – should ultimately decide who should live and who should die’
But with the rise of the Alpha variant at the end of 2020, the country’s Government tightened its measures, restricting how many people could meet in groups from 50 to eight.
However, it still avoided a lockdown, while the UK was plunged into its second in autumn that year. Dr Tegnell even joined a September 2020 UK Government meeting, where he was allocated 15 minutes to persuade Boris Johnson a lockdown was unnecessary at that point.
As a result, Dr Tegnell emerged as the figurehead of Sweden’s controversial and less strict strategy.
Giving an interview for his new booked, titled ‘Tankar efter en pandemi’ (Thoughts after a pandemic), he said: ‘We were not any kind of libertarian paradise.
‘We were just a society trying to find good ways to handle it in the most effective way for us.’
In his book, which dissects and explains each stage of Sweden’s strategy against Covid, he writes that ‘many perceived Swedish volunteerism as a passive approach’ but said this was a ‘misunderstanding’.
He admitted communication from the Public Health Agency of Sweden could have been better at times.
‘I also thought that people actually could handle this themselves,’ he notes in his book. He writes that he believes his faith was justified.
‘We did not force anyone but saw a huge compliance with our recommendations,’ Dr Tegnell writes.
The epidemiologist details his astonishment at the anger and even death threats directed at him but insists the majority of Swedes supported the rules.
During the first wave of the pandemic, Sweden was one of the countries hit hard, especially as the disease ravaged retirement homes, claiming the lives of 2,780 people between March 1 and September 30, 2020, according to official statistics.
Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf and other scientists slammed his decisions for failing to protect the elderly in the early stages of the pandemic.
The epidemiologist thought it would be easier to care for the elderly in Sweden than elsewhere in Europe, because they were all gathered together in one place.
But he admits he ‘was completely wrong,’ as the homes lacked both the resources and skills needed.
In his book, Tegnell calls it a ‘catastrophic situation.’
‘We really need to improve the quality of care in our elderly homes, the preparedness for these kinds of issues,’ Dr Tegnell said.
Giving an interview for his new booked, titled ‘Tankar efter en pandemi’ (Thoughts after a pandemic), he said: ‘We were not any kind of libertarian paradise’
The UK reported a peak of 3,180 cases per million at the peak in January 2022, while Sweden logged a spike of 3,855 per million
At a peak in January 2021, the UK logged 575 hospitalisations per million, while Sweden spiked at 263 per million
In total, Sweden has recorded some 19,500 deaths associated with Covid since the start of the pandemic.
Due to differences in logging data, comparisons between countries are difficult.
However, figures from Oxford University platform Our World in Data suggests Sweden is doing better than its European peers.
It has logged 2,370 deaths per million people compared to the 2,769 per million average for the European Union by late October.
However, its Scandinavian counterparts, which brought in stricter curbs, have seen fewer fatalities. Denmark has logged 1,500 per million, while Norway has reported 1,055 per million.
For comparison, the UK has logged 3,421 per million, while the US is only slightly behind at 3,365 per million.
READ MORE: Matt Hancock told Public Health England chief ‘not to patronise him’ in row which saw her told to stay away from the ex-Health Secretary
Professor Yvonne Doyle, former medical director of the now-defunct Public Health England, was also told to distance herself from the then-Health Secretary, despite the developing crisis
Sweden also distinguished itself by never pushing for the widespread use of face masks, and they were only recommended on public transport during the second wave of the pandemic.
‘Many countries in Asia have been using masks in public places for decades to limit the spread of the virus during the flu season. Had they been doing it wrong all these years?,’ Tegnell ponders.
‘It wasn’t my role to judge,’ he continues. ‘But in all the research, I couldn’t find any evidence that it made a difference for the better.’
The scientist also urges authorities and organisations to take stock of the pandemic to learn for the future: ‘What happened and what did we do?’
The country’s official Covid commission concluded Sweden was right not to impose a stringent lockdown in early 2020.
But the commission also said authorities should have ‘opted for more rigorous and intrusive disease prevention and control measures’ at the start of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the UK Covid Inquiry is still in its early stages. Hearings examining resilience and preparedness have wrapped up, while those looking at core UK decision making and political governance are ongoing.
Further modules will probe healthcare systems, vaccines and therapeutics, procurement and the care sector.
Dr Tegnell said the lessons learned from the pandemic will be invaluable, as there will inevitably be another global outbreak and it is likely to fall ‘within the next few decades’.
‘In many parts of the world the population is growing, which means that we start living in areas where we haven’t been before and in those areas there are very likely going to be new kinds of viruses that we haven’t seen before,’ Dr Tegnell said.
Whether we are prepared for the next one is ‘always difficult to know’, he said.
‘I think that we are slightly better prepared than we were for this one. But I think there is also lots more work to be done,’ Dr Tegnell added.
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