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Coronavirus: Scientist leading Sweden’s Covid-19 response says UK lockdown has gone too far

The Independent logo The Independent 05/04/2020 Samuel Lovett
Luke Askew looking at the camera © Provided by The Independent

Britain’s lockdown measures have gone too far in attempts to contain the spread of coronavirus, says the scientist leading Sweden’s response to the global pandemic.

Under the strategy developed by state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, Sweden currently stands alone in its efforts to tackle Covid-19.

Schools and offices remain open, as do restaurants (although only for table service to avoid gatherings at the bar), while public gatherings of up to 50 people are still permitted.

The elderly and vulnerable have been asked to protect themselves by staying at home but, as a whole, the Swedish population has been trusted to “behave like adults” in limiting the transmission of coronavirus, as prime minister Stefan Lovren said last month.

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It is an approach that was initially adopted by the British government, before a report from the Imperial College London claimed that the UK’s “mitigation strategy” would result in 250,000 deaths from coronavirus.

Amid pressure from the public and scientific community, prime minister Boris Johnson reversed the national approach and placed the entire country into lockdown – a U-turn that Dr Tegnell has now questioned.

“I am very sceptical of lockdowns altogether but if you ever do them, you should do them at an early stage,” he told the Mail on Sunday.

“At certain times I suppose they can be useful, if you are unprepared and need more intensive care facilities, for example.”

Dr Tegnell added that he believes his method of fighting the virus, while different to other countries, is producing results.

He added: “So far, what we are doing is working. In a sense we are beating it, and I am confident we are doing the best we can in the circumstances.

“We can’t kill all our services. And unemployed people are a great threat to public health. It’s a factor you need to think about.”

Regarding Imperial College London’s much-cited report, Dr Tegnell has previously admitted he was “a bit surprised that it’s had such an impact.” He added: “It’s not a peer-reviewed paper.”

Dr Tegnell’s strategy appears to have drawn support within Sweden. According to one poll, about three-quarters of the Swedish public is at least quite confident that the country is taking the necessary precautions to deal with coronavirus.

In line with a study publish by Harvard University, which shows that enacting harsh social distancing measures could lead to a resurgence of infections in the autumn, Dr Tegnell has said that “having a very abrupt stop of the spread now would actually move the problem ahead of us”.

However, others within Sweden have raised concern that the country’s current approach is dismissing scientific data and risking thousands of lives in the process.

A petition signed by more than 2,000 doctors, scientists, and professors has called on the government to tighten restrictions and enforce strict containment measures.

Cecilia Soderberg-Naucler, a professor at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, said: “I am a scientist. I don’t trust authorities, I trust data.

“I don’t see transparency of data that makes me calm and believe the right strategy has been chosen.

“We’re not testing enough, we’re not tracking, we’re not isolating enough – we’ve let the virus loose.”

It is unclear how many people in Sweden have already contracted coronavirus.

Tom Britton, a maths professor at Stockholm University who has been modelling the spread of the virus, predicts 10 per cent of the population is already infected. “If I guess correctly about half the population could be infected by the end of April,” he told The Times.

Although Mr Tegnell has avoided describing his strategy as ‘herd immunity’, he has spoken of the inevitability of the disease passing through a large proportion of the population.

He has said his goal is to slow the spread of infection to a manageable pace which would avoid straining the country’s healthcare system, and believes a strict lockdown is not necessary to achieve that.

“We put in a lot of effort trying to stop the disease from entering Sweden,” said Dr Tegnell. “We also did a lot of testing and contact tracing. This bought us time for the health service to prepare.”

Although Sweden’s figures lag behind the UK’s – to date, 6,433 cases and 373 deaths have been reported by health officials – the country is believed to be a number of weeks behind on the virus curve.

Sweden’s closest neighbours have all enforced draconian measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Norway and Denmark have so far recorded 5,645 and 4,369 cases respectively, along with 62 and 179 deaths.

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