Sweden’s chief epidemiologist and the architect of its light-touch approach to the coronavirus has acknowledged that the country has had too many deaths from Covid-19 and should have done more to curb the spread of the virus.
Anders Tegnell, who has previously criticised other countries’ strict lockdowns as not sustainable in the long run, told Swedish Radio on Wednesday that there was “quite obviously a potential for improvement in what we have done” in Sweden.
Asked whether too many people in Sweden had died, he replied: “Yes, absolutely,” adding that the country would have to consider in the future whether there had been a way of preventing such a high toll.
The country’s death rate per capita was the highest in the world over the seven days to 2 June, figures suggest. This week the Swedish government, bowing to opposition pressure, promised to set up a commission to look into its Covid-19 strategy.
“If we were to encounter the same disease again knowing exactly what we know about it today, I think we would settle on doing something in between what Sweden did and what the rest of the world has done,” Tegnell said. It would be “good to know exactly what to shut down to curb the spread of infection better”, he added.
According to the scientific online publication Ourworldindata.com, the number of Covid-19 deaths per capita in Sweden was the highest in the world in a rolling seven-day average to 2 June. The country’s rate of 5.29 deaths per million inhabitants a day was well above the UK’s 4.48.
Relying on its citizens’ sense of civic duty, Sweden closed schools for all over-16s and banned gatherings of more than 50, but only asked – rather than ordered – people to avoid non-essential travel and not to go out if they were elderly or ill. Shops, restaurants and gyms have remained open.
Although there are signs that public opinion is starting to shift, polls have shown a large majority of Swedes support and have generally complied with the government’s less coercive strategy, which is in stark contrast to the mandatory lockdowns imposed by many countries, including Sweden’s Nordic neighbours.
But the policy, which Tegnell has said was aimed not at achieving herd immunity but at slowing the spread of the virus enough for health services to cope, has been increasingly and heavily criticised by many Swedish experts.
Sweden’s 4,468 fatalities from Covid-19 represent a death toll of 449 per million inhabitants, compared with 45 in Norway, 100 in Denmark and 58 in Finland. Its per-million tally remains lower than the corresponding figures of 555, 581 and 593 in Italy, Spain and the UK respectively.
Norway and Denmark announced last week that they were dropping mutual border controls but would provisionally exclude Sweden from a Nordic “travel bubble” because of its much higher coronavirus infection rate.
Tegnell told Swedish Radio it was not clear yet exactly what the country should have done differently, or whether the restrictions it did impose should have been introduced simultaneously rather than step by step.
“Other countries started with a lot of measures all at once. The problem with that is that you don’t really know which of the measures you have taken is most effective,” he said, adding that conclusions would have to be drawn about “what else, besides what we did, you could do without imposing a total shutdown.”
Despite the stated goal of protecting the nation’s elderly people, Sweden’s strategy has been particularly catastrophic for this age group, with roughly half the country’s deaths so far occurring in care homes.
Annike Linde, Tegnell’s predecessor as chief epidemiologist from 2005 to 2013, said last week that she had initially backed the country’s strategy, but had begun to reassess her view as the virus swept through the elderly population.
“There was no strategy at all for the elderly, I now understand,” Linde told the Swedish state broadcaster. “I do not understand how they can stand and say the level of preparedness was good, when in fact it was lousy.”
She said another key mistake was to assume that the coronavirus would behave like seasonal flu. “It does not behave like the flu at all,” she said. “It spreads more slowly and has a longer incubation time. This makes it more difficult to detect, and to build immunity in the population.”
Sweden would have done better to follow its Nordic neighbours, close its borders and invest in testing and tracking to a far greater extent, she said.
A study last month found that only 7.3% of Stockholm’s inhabitants had developed Covid-19 antibodies by the end of April.