Swedish coronavirus chief concedes he'd change 'herd immunity' Covid-19 response

Anders Tegnell says Sweden would apply tougher measures amid any second virus wave

FILE PHOTO: Anders Tegnell, the state epidemiologist of the Public Health Agency of Sweden speaks during a news conference about the daily update on the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) situation, in Stockholm, Sweden May 27, 2020. Pontus Lundahl/TT News Agency/via REUTERS/File Photo      ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. SWEDEN OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SWEDEN.

Sweden’s chief coronavirus adviser has conceded that his country may have been too relaxed in its approach to lockdown, sparking an angry backlash.

If Covid-19 struck again, Anders Tegnell told a local radio station, “I think we would end up doing in between what Sweden did and what the rest of the world did.”

His words were immediately pounced on by critics of the Swedish method, which accepts an initial high death toll before herd immunity is achieved. The approach of voluntary social distancing rules and allowing crowds of 50 to gather goes against much of the rest of world’s policy of strict lockdown measures enforced by law.

But Sweden believes that it recognised early on that the consequence of lockdown would be an initial lower death toll but also a devastated economy.

At this juncture no one can say for certain who is right. Only in a year or so will the facts prove whether Sweden took a reckless gamble or displayed great foresight and fortitude.

There are reasons why critics are vocal against the Swedish way. Some, including its neighbours, see the Scandinavian country as selfish and if Stockholm is successful then it was in some part dependent on other countries locking down. But there is also a political point. When faced with the large death toll – estimated at 350,000 in Britain – that could result from a policy of herd immunity, this was considered politically unacceptable.

There is also an argument that Sweden should not be looked to as a ‘control experiment’ alongside the rest of the world’s approach. “What would have happened if Britain, America and Italy did not lock down as well?" asked Dr Ilan Kelman, professor of disasters and health at University College London. “The fact that other countries locked down helped Sweden. The point is that we are all in this together, the whole world.”

It is possible that globally, either a vaccine or herd immunity comes first. With the immense cash prize on offer for the winner of the vaccine race, it appears that one could well be available by the autumn. If not, the virus will be properly tested for the first time over winter, when it is likely to become more virulent and possibly mutate. If so, the second wave of infection and deaths could be high. But will governments where economies have already taken a battering be so eager for more strict lockdowns? What will Sweden look like in November?

While Sweden’s death rate is high – 4,542 fatalities out of a population of 10 million – it is not significantly different from that of Britain, France or others. Sweden has accepted that initial high fatalities at a manageable rate will put it on the path to herd immunity. And by extension Sweden’s economy will come out intact with daily life, including children’s education, relatively undisturbed.

The current slackening curve of infections could mean that the country will achieve herd immunity more slowly than thought. It had been expected that the Stockholm district of two million people would reach 60 per cent rate of infection by this month. That now appears unlikely.

If the global vaccine effort fails then the infection will continue spread and nature will possibly ensure that herd immunity takes care of the rest. Only then will Sweden and Dr Tegnell be able to say ‘told you so’, but not without great risk to themselves and others. Which comes back to the point about the coronavirus: it respects no borders, religion or social standing. As Dr Kelman said, we are all in this together.