- Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, has defended his country’s unusually lax response to the coronavirus.
- Sweden has encouraged social distancing, but not has not forced businesses, restaurants, or schools to close.
- Tegnell said the strategy has achieved its aim of defending the health service, and claimed Stockholm is showing signs of herd immunity.
- Its case numbers are comparable to neighboring countries, but the death rate is much higher.
- Tegnell said it is “very difficult” to know if a lockdown could have prevented more deaths, particularly in care homes.
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The architect of Sweden’s plan not to lock down for the coronavirus pandemic said that he thinks it’s working, and that the capital, Stockholm, is already benefiting from herd immunity.
Sweden chose a strategy of implementing a few rules and broadly urging people to socially distance rather than implement a strict lockdown. It says that its people can be trusted to follow its guidelines.
The strategy has left schools and restaurants open, in contrast to most other countries with outbreaks.
Sweden’s number of deaths is higher than in other Nordic countries, some of which were among the very earliest countries to lock down and are now taking steps to reopen.
Sweden has a population of around 1o million. It has reported more than 16,700 cases of the coronavirus, and more than 2,000 deaths.
In contrast, Denmark, home to almost six million, has reported around 8,000 cases and 394 deaths. Norway, home to over five million people, has around 7,400 cases and 194 deaths.
Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, told the BBC that the measures taken had been effective in stopping the country’s health system from being overwhelmed by coronavirus patients.
He said the virus spreading through the population has allowed some immunity to build up among the population.
“It has worked in some aspects,” Tegnell said. “It has worked because our health system has been able to cope. There has always been at least 20% of the intensive care beds empty and able to take care of COVID-19 patients.”
Protecting ICU capacity is also the aim of countries which decided to lock down. Tegnell appears to be saying that Sweden achieved this without having to act so drastically.
And he said that around 15% to 20% of people in Stockholm, the country’s capital, have reached a level of immunity, that would “slow down the spread” of a second wave of the virus, something experts worldwide warning could be coming.
However, the level of immunity people keep after recovering from the virus is currently unclear.
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The World Health Organization has warned that not everyone who has been infected has developed the antibodies that are needed to have any immunity, and also said that not everyone who has antibodies is immune.
Tegnell said there is much that is still not known about immunity to the virus, and said that the 15% to 20% figure would not be enough to create “herd immunity”: the point at which so many people in an area are immune to a virus that it cannot spread effectively and vulnerable people are protected.
He told CNBC on Tuesday that new cases in places like Stockholm have plateaued, and that the country is getting closer to herd immunity over time.
He said that in Stockholm “we’re already seeing the effect of herd immunity and in a few weeks’ time we’ll see even more of the effects of that. And in the rest of the country, the situation is stable.”
Sweden has distanced its strategy from the UK’s original “herd immunity” plan for dealing with the virus, which was abandoned when modeling found that it could have resulted in up to 250,000 deaths.
Ann Linde, Sweden’s foreign minister, said US President Trump was “factually wrong” when he suggested that Sweden was using the UK’s herd immunity strategy, which would have allowed large gatherings to go ahead.
Sweden’s strategy has stood out from most of the rest of the world
Sweden’s approach means that:
- Bars, restaurants, and malls are open.
- Schools are still open, and parents are required to keep sending their children there.
- The government has urged against non-essential travel.
- People are encouraged to work from home if they can, stay home if they feel unwell, keep a distance from others in public, and regularly wash their hands.
- People over 70 or in a higher-risk group are urged to stay home.
- The only restrictions are that gatherings of more than 50 people are banned, bars and restaurants can serve only customers who are seated to reduce crowding, and people cannot visit nursing homes.
- Sweden’s parliament gave the government powers to quickly introduce more restrictions if needed, though they have not yet been used.
The has government repeatedly defended its policy, and experts say it has been aided by the population’s high level of government trust and willingness to follow the rules.
But some experts have expressed alarm and asked for more justification for the unusual approach.
Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said that Sweden’s strategy would help protect the health system but not prevent death. He warned that the death toll would eventually reach the “thousands.”
When asked if bringing in more restrictions would have kept the death toll lower, Tegnell told the BBC “that’s a very difficult question to answer at this stage.”
“At least 50% of our death toll is within the elderly homes and we have a hard time understanding how a lockdown would stop the introduction of the disease into the elderly homes,” he said.
This means that Sweden has faced the same issue as many other European countries, where there are few cases and deaths outside of long-term care facilities.