A wounded prime minister and a battered economy force England to become “Swedish” on Covid | Larry Elliott
GGovernment policy on Covid-19 has closed. At least for now, England has returned to the Swedish way of dealing with the pandemic. Hard, officially imposed bans are out. Trusting people to do the sensible thing is back on.
Whether this -proach will survive the expected surge in hospital admissions due to the Christmas and New Years celebrations remains to be seen. Boris Johnson is the master of the screeching U-turn and as the number of infections hit new records, the pressure to act is growing on Downing Street. We have been here before.
In the early days of the pandemic, the prime minister wanted to copy Sweden, a country that imposed few restrictions and decided early on that it had to learn to live with the virus.
The Prime Minister’s flirtation with the “Sweden Experiment” was brief, and at the end of March 2020 a draconian lockdown was imposed. Ministers knew this would have serious economic repercussions, but felt that the risk of overburdening the NHS left them no choice.
An article published in Nature last year examined what would have h -pened if the UK had followed the Swedish -proach. Even assuming the public here would have been just as willing to adhere to non-mandatory recommendations as Swedes (a pretty big assumption), the UK death rate would have at least doubled.
This time the decision is much less clear, not least because vaccines protect against the virus. The news from South Africa, one of the countries where Omicron first -peared, was also encouraging. The new variant, while more transferable, has resulted in fewer hospital admissions and deaths. The number of cases, having increased r -idly, is now falling.
Caution should be exercised when comparing the two countries as South Africa has a much younger population than the UK and it tends to be summer rather than the middle of winter. Even so, it is clear that the government has set the bar high for further restrictions.
The Prime Minister’s weakened political position is one reason the government has become Swedish. The risk of causing serious damage to the economy when it -pears particularly fragile is another as this is going to be a rough year for the UK public. Inflation is rising, interest rates are rising, and energy bills are expected to skyrocket in the spring when Rishi Sunak’s social security increase goes into effect.
The cumulative effect is a whopping reduction in living standards. According to the Resolution Foundation think tank, the average household will be off by £ 1,000 a year. Those on the lowest incomes will be hit particularly hard by rising gas and electricity bills.
Given the circumstances, it is easy to see why the government is reluctant to exacerbate economic problems through tighter restrictions in order to slow the spread of the Omicron variant. New throttles mean slower growth and a drag on public finances. They would also test the resilience of the labor market.
The Swedes received a lot of criticism for going it alone. Death rates, while much lower than the initial pessimistic projections, were still higher than in neighboring Scandinavian countries, where severe restrictions were imposed. Furthermore, the initial blow to the economy in liberal Sweden was as severe as it was in sealed-off Denmark.
However, with the second anniversary of the arrival of Covid -proaching, governments are starting to see the benefits of the Swedish -proach. That’s partly because Sweden now has a lower death rate than countries that have gone the route of total lockdown, including the UK, France, Spain and Italy. It is in the lower half of the EU death rate ranking when you factor in population size. The economic recovery was quite brisk. The UK is still struggling to get back to pre-Covid production levels: Sweden had managed that by mid-2021.
But there are other factors as well. Sweden avoided the lockdown fatigue problem and did not affect its children’s life chances by keeping schools open during the pandemic.
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All of this suggests that the Nature p -er will not be the last word on the Swedish experiment. The pandemic had few benefits, but one of them is that it has produced rich country-specific data for academics of all disciplines – epidemiologists, economists, educators, sociologists – to study and discuss.
Different -proaches have also been tried within the countries. The four member states of the UK have exercised their own powers so it should soon be possible to assess the impact of nightclub closings in Scotland and Wales, but not England, for New Years Eve. The EU countries have followed different -proaches, while the US makes 50 countries available for study.
What is clear is that no country did everything right and all made mistakes, which is unsurprising as they did not expect a global pandemic. It is also evident that governments – whether in London, Edinburgh, Rome or Paris – have been reluctant to tighten restrictions over time. In a way, that’s a sneaky compliment to the Swedes for maybe hearing something from the start.