One issue will be especially puzzling to them when future historians write the story of Britain’s chaotic pandemic response: Why did so many influential public figures spend 2020 talking about Sweden while Britain was experiencing one of the worst covid outbreaks in the world? Nearly as soon as a national lockdown was declared by Boris Johnson at the end of March, British newspaper columnists and specialist critics requested that the prime minister follow “the Swedish model” and advised them to do so as late as September. We now know for sure what public health experts have expected for a long time: a cavalier approach to coronavirus does not work.
Sweden, though experiencing comparable economic damage, faces a far higher mortality rate than its Nordic neighbors. And yet, Sweden was still kept up as a blueprint to pursue in the late fall, when the covid virus mutated in England.
In mid-October, Tory MP Christopher Chope lauded the virtues of what he had previously referred to in Parliament as Sweden’s “clear and simple” approach. Of course, the vociferous “admired Sweden’s handling of the pandemic.” chants from sections of the conservative press were less about Abba’s birthplace and more about pushing the notion that Britain might simply “Sweden” if only politicians were bold enough to do so. Just last month, Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson tweeted that she “open up”
Self-styled skeptics of foreclosure promised – and still promise – that “herd immunity” will save all of us, and regularly pointed to the adoption of this method by Sweden as evidence. Our future historians will certainly also wonder how Sweden, in the space of a few months, went from a gang violence-ridden dystopia to a role model in the minds of those on the British right. The response is very simple: the same small number of people who talked so fervently about the libertarian reluctance of Sweden to lock down – newspaper columnists, backbenchers, anonymously financed think tanks – have access to British public discourse that is massively outsized.
In my new book, I explain how a coalition of Tory MPs, privately funded think tanks, and omnipresent media pundits turned “no-deal Brexit” from a far-fetched notion into “nothing to fear.”
The same techniques were used during the pandemic – even by the same individuals. During the Brexit referendum, after holding up Norway as a blueprint, Daniel (soon to be Lord) Hannan said we should all be like Sweden.
The Institute of Economic Affairs’ Christopher Snowdon said Sweden had “demonstrated a more sensible way to balance risk, freedom and economics.”
After effectively mobilizing the European Research Community of the Tory MPs in favor of a tough Brexit, Steve Baker also formed his own tribute: the Covid Recovery Group, or CRG. All this talk about Sweden in Downing Street seems to have affected decision-making.
According to a Sunday Times article, after meeting with Chancellor Rishi Sunak and three advocates of the herd immunity strategy, Johnson decided against compartmentalization in September: Sunetra Gupta and Carl Heneghan of the University of Oxford, and Anders Tegnell, the epidemiologist behind Sweden’s laissez-faire approach to the pandemic. (When openDemocracy demanded information of Tegnell’s correspondence with the office of the prime minister, it was informed that any disclosure might jeopardize the formulation of government policy.) The ubiquity of Covid’s dissenting voices played into the well-documented inclination to indecision of Boris Johnson.
As anyone who tries to influence the prime minister knows, when faced with a number of choices, he can always do nothing. After the September meeting with Tegnell and Co., the delay in implementing the restrictions in England resulted in an estimated 1.3 million additional covid infections. The Swedish model’s rhetoric – and herd immunity – set the stage for the UK. To loosen constraints more quickly than researchers or even the public wanted. We were also given a financial incentive to do what we already suspected that the virus would spread: mingle indoors. “The picture of a maskless Rishi Sunak serving meals in a wagamama in London to launch the “eat out to help out” initiative in August is not