If Sweden Succeeds, Lockdowns Will All Have Been for Nothing
"Sweden is like the control in an experiment. No wonder the lockdown enthusiasts sound so tetchy"
When foreign commentators discuss Sweden’s light-touch response to Covid-19, they tend to adopt an affronted tone. Which is, on the surface, surprising. You’d think everyone would be willing the Nordic country to succeed. After all, if Sweden can come through the epidemic without leaving a smoking crater where its economy used to be, there is hope for the rest of the world. So far, many signs appear encouraging. The disease seems to be following the same basic trajectory in Sweden as elsewhere.
Although we must wait for complete data, modelling by country’s authorities suggests that the infection rate in Stockholm peaked on 8 April. If so, we need to consider the implication, namely that, once basic hygiene and distancing measures are in place, tightening the screw further perhaps makes little difference. Which would be good news for the rest of us. Adopting Sweden’s more laissez-faire response might not restore our economies to full health, but it would at least allow us to bring them out of their induced comas.
Sweden is, broadly speaking, sticking to the approach that Britain followed in the week before the lockdown – the approach, indeed, that our strategists had wargamed in cooler-headed times. On 23 March, in an abrupt shift, Britain’s shops were closed and its people told to stay at home.
What had changed? Was it the hysterical media demand for a Continental-style crackdown? Or the furious reaction to people visiting beauty spots on Mothering Sunday? Or was it the Imperial College model, published a few days earlier, which warned of hundreds of thousands of deaths unless there was a mass quarantine? Whatever the explanation, the lockdown soon took on a momentum of its own, with every new death turned into an argument for tighter restrictions.
It is important to stress that Sweden is not being insouciant. Its people have been told to work from home if they can and to avoid unnecessary contact. Sports fixtures and meetings of more than 50 people are banned. Cafés can serve customers at tables, but not at the bar. Many Swedes, especially the elderly, are isolating themselves by choice. Personal spending, measured by bank card transactions, is down 30 per cent – though, by comparison, the fall in Norway is 66 per cent and in Finland 70 per cent.
“I was sceptical at first”, a friend in the southern county of Blekinge tells me. “But every day I feel more confident. Our public health people look like they made the right call”.
Most Swedes agree with her. According to the pollster Novus, 76 per cent support the public health agency.
“It’s bad news for us politically,” a Rightist MP admits. “The socialist government is up 21 points. But I am a patriot, and I want what is best for my country. I criticise ministers for not helping small businesses. But I don’t criticise them for sticking to the science when other countries gave in to populism.”
Sweden’s domestic consensus is not reflected internationally. “We fear that Sweden has picked the worst possible time to experiment with national chauvinism,” chides the Washington Post.
Donald Trump, justifying his own retreat from openness, claimed that Sweden “gave it a shot, and they saw things that were really frightening, and they went immediately to shutting down the country.”
The Guardian now purses its lips when it mentions its erstwhile pin-up. Its recent headlines have included “Critics question Swedish approach as coronavirus death toll reaches 1,000,” and “Anger in Sweden as elderly pay price for coronavirus strategy”.
True, Sweden has had more deaths, proportionately, than its Nordic neighbours (though fewer than Spain, France or Britain. This is partly because the virus tragically found its way into care homes. But it is worth bearing in mind that the Swedish strategy always allowed for the possibility of a higher initial death rate.
Britain, remember, closed its economy in order to “squash the sombrero” – that is, to spread out the number of infections and, avoid crippling the NHS. The policy seems to have succeeded: there are more spare critical care beds available than before the pandemic started. The Swedish authorities calculated that their hospitals did not need a delay, and believe they have been vindicated. Sweden’s public health agency says that a third of Stockholm residents will have been infected by May 1. If having had the disease leaves a measure of immunity, Sweden will emerge from the crisis much earlier than the countries that are dragging things out.
That is still a big “if”. But public policy should rest on the principle of proportionality. It should not be up to me to prove that lockdowns definitely don’t work. The burden of proof lies on those who propose to remove our freedoms, not on defenders of the status quo ante.
When Britain’s closures were announced, they had a clear goal: to buy time for the NHS. It worked: we were spared the horror that overtook parts of Italy. The government believes that fatalities peaked on 8 April, suggesting that the rate of infection peaked around 18 March – in other words, when Britain was still pursuing a Swedish-style policy of maintaining distance and hand-washing.
So why not return to that policy? How did “flattening the curve” morph into “avoiding a second peak”? It is hard to see how ending a mass quarantine won’t lead to some uptick – just as it will lead to an uptick in common colds and traffic accidents. Our goal, surely, should be to ensure that this uptick does not overwhelm the system. In other words, we should aim to prevent people dying for want of medical attention, not to prevent all deaths – which, in the absence of a cure, is impossible.
One of the most dangerous human biases is the sunk costs fallacy, the idea that we have sacrificed too much to give up now. That notion can lead to disaster. Every belligerent nation in the First World War, for example, suffered more than any conceivable war aims could justify; but, once the slaughter had begun, it became its own justification. Agreeing terms would mean that all those young men had died in vain. Nothing less than total victory would honour them.
Listen to the phrases we hear at the 5pm daily briefings. We must not take our foot off the pedal, we keep being told, or everything we have achieved so far will have been for nothing. We have, as Matt Hancock put it on Thursday, “travelled too far together to go back now”.
But what if the harshness of a lockdown has little bearing on the overall rate of mortality? In Europe, France, Spain and Italy, all of which imposed heavy restrictions, have suffered worse than, say, Sweden. There may, of course, be other explanations: demographics, population density, cultural habits. But, to repeat, it is for proponents of unprecedented state coercion to prove their case, not for their opponents to prove a negative.
Could it be, as Isaac Ben-Israel argues, that the disease traces a similar arc however strict the lockdown? According to the Israeli scientist: “It turns out that a similar pattern – rapid increase in infections that reaches a peak in the sixth week and declines from the eighth week – is common to all countries in which the disease was discovered, regardless of their response policies.”
He may be wrong, obviously. But it will not do to respond by saying: “Let’s keep the lockdown going a little longer, just to be sure”. The default position should be to retain our freedoms unless there is solid evidence that abandoning them will make a significant difference. In any case, at £2.4 billion a day, time is a luxury we don’t have.
The resentment aimed at Sweden reflects an uneasy sense that the rest of us may be condemning ourselves to years of needless poverty. Sweden is like the control in an experiment. If it succeeds, the lockdown enthusiasts will never be able to claim that, but for their measures, things would have been even worse. No wonder they sound so tetchy.
Source: The Telegraph
Daniel Hannan was a British MEP from 1999 until Brexit.