Architect of Sweden's coronavirus strategy regrets not imposing tougher lockdown

Richard Orange
Sweden's state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has for the first time admitted that the Swedish approach perhaps did not go far enough -  Pontus Lundahl/Shutterstock
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Sweden's state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, has admitted that the country should have imposed greater restrictions to bring its coronavirus epidemic under control – the first time he has expressed doubts about his decision not to impose a lockdown.

In an interview with Sweden's state radio broadcaster SR, Mr Tegnell said that, given Sweden's stubbornly high death rate, he no longer believed that he and the Public Health Agency of Sweden had got the balance right.

"If we were hit by the same disease, knowing exactly what we know today, I think we would end up doing something between what Sweden has done and what the rest of the world has done," he said.

"I think there's certainly room for improvement in what we've done in Sweden, absolutely."

Sweden's coronavirus strategy, which is much less restrictive than that of any other developed country, has received enormous attention globally in recent months.  

Schools for those up the age of 16, bars and restaurants, shopping centres and sports facilities have all been allowed to remain open, while gatherings of up to 50 people have always been permitted.

Cafes, schools, bars and restaurants have all stayed open in Sweden during the pandemic - Loulou D'Aki/Bloomberg

The country's authorities have instead placed a heavy reliance on voluntary measures, with people asked to stay at home if they have even light symptoms, follow hygiene rules and keep their distance.

Doubts started to grow over the approach, however, when Sweden's death rate began to pull dramatically away from those of Denmark and Norway, which both imposed much more thorough restrictions, in April .

Sweden's death rate, at 443 per million inhabitants, is now 10 times that of Norway, four times that of Denmark, in line with that of France and slowly catching up with that of Italy. 

Mr Tegnell has formerly largely blamed Sweden's high death rate on the failure of the municipalities and private companies running the country's care homes to adequately protect the elderly. 

Swedes have been strongly encouraged by their government to observe social distancing, but no strict lockdown has been imposed - HENRIK MONTGOMERY/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/Shutterstock

The interview marked the first time he has questioned his decision to impose such light restrictions. But he said that, because so many other countries have imposed blanket lockdowns, it remained difficult to know exactly which measures had made the difference. 

"It would be good to know more precisely what to shut down to prevent the spread of infection better," he added. "As it is, every country threw everything in right away. Sweden is one of the few countries that has worked up one step at a time. 

"Maybe we will know more when people start removing measures one at a time, then maybe we will get some kind of lesson about what else, besides what we did, you could do without imposing a total shutdown."