Ross Clark Ross Clark

Will Sweden’s social distancing-lite work?

Epidemiologists are themselves deeply divided on how to handle coronavirus

A restaurant in Stockholm during the coronavirus crisis, Credit: Getty

The science of epidemiology relies a lot on modelling because, for obvious reasons, controlled experimentation would be unethical. But in the case of Covid-19 we do have something approaching a real-life experiment – in that Sweden has declined to follow other European countries into lockdown. Instead, it has followed a policy which might be summed up as social distancing-lite. Gatherings of more than 50 people have been outlawed, closing theatres and putting an end to sports events. But children up to the age of 16 are still attending school, shops and restaurants are still open – albeit with rules preventing people standing up at the bar – and no police officer is to blow a whistle at you for sitting on a park bench.

For some, Sweden is taking a measured approach which allows it to fight Covid-19 without ruining its economy; for others it is carrying out a dangerous gamble with people’s lives. The debate rages within Sweden itself, with the country’s chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, having to defend his policy against increasingly loud calls for a Swedish lockdown. As for the evidence we have so far, it can be used to argue it either way. As of Saturday, Sweden had suffered 150 deaths from Covid-19 per million population. That is significantly more than its locked-down Nordic neighbours – Denmark was on 60, Norway on 30 and Finland on 17 – but a long way short of other European countries which have been in lockdown for weeks. Britain has suffered 228 deaths per million, France 296, Italy 384 and Spain 441. The worst country, incidentally, is none of these – it is Belgium, with 490 deaths per million.

Tegnell is not a maverick; his views on how best to handle Covid-19 are backed by other epidemiologists in Sweden and around the world.

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