Sweden ‘could have done better’ in tackling coronavirus outbreak, chief epidemiologist admits

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People dine in a restaurant on March 27, 2020 in Stockholm during the the new coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

JONATHAN NACKSTRAND

Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, who controversially advocated a no-lockdown strategy to combat the coronavirus epidemic in the country, has admitted that more could have been done to tackle the outbreak.

“Yes, I think we could have done better in what we did in Sweden, clearly,” Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist at its Public Health Agency, told Swedish radio Wednesday, Reuters reported.

“If we were to run into the same disease, knowing exactly what we know about it today, I think we would end up doing something in between what Sweden did and what the rest of the world has done,” he said.

Unlike most of Europe, Sweden decided against implementing a full lockdown of public and economic life when the coronavirus began to spread in Europe in March, opting instead for largely voluntary measures. Schools remained open for under-16s and bars and restaurants could serve customers as long as they were seated.

The country’s government advocated personal hygiene measures, social distancing and working from home if possible, and also banned visits to care homes and mass gatherings. But although the capital Stockholm was quieter, according to residents, life carried on much as before.

The strategy has proved controversial, with epidemiologist Tegnell and his team accused of playing “Russian roulette” with people’s lives in their pursuit of “herd immunity” (a strategy that tacitly allows a virus to spread, in the hopes that the majority of people develop antibodies against it). The policy has proved costly, however, as the virus has hit Sweden harder than its neighbors, with care homes particularly badly affected.

To date, 4,468 people have died from the virus in Sweden (a country with around 10 million inhabitants) and there have been 38,589 confirmed cases, far higher numbers than those seen in its neighbors Denmark, Norway and Finland, which each have a population of around five million and imposed far stricter lockdowns.

Tegnell said that, in time, it might become clear which measures, taken elsewhere, could have been effective in Sweden.

“Maybe we will find this out now that people have started removing measures, one at a time,” he said. “And then maybe we will get some kind of information on what, in addition to what we did, we could do without adopting a total lockdown.”

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven has said the government will launch an investigation into the handling of the pandemic. 

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