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No lockdown, no hysteria … DOMINIC SANDBROOK asks: Is Sweden proof that we got it all terribly wrong?


I took a walk to the shops a few days ago. It was a lovely morning and the parks and cafes were full of families enjoying the sunshine.

Perhaps the shops were a little quieter than a year ago; but they were busy enough.

The restaurants were preparing for lunch; The mood was relaxed and happy. And no one – yes, no one – wore a mask.

This is of course the giveaway.

I was not in the UK but in Sweden, a nation that was alone in Europe and refused to initiate a lockdown.

And when I got in line to buy my son an ice cream, I was impressed by the contrast with the situation at home. Like most people, I never thought the lockdown would last so long or that the consequences would be so disastrous.

A foretaste of freedom: During the pandemic, Swedes were able to enjoy the sun, do sports and socialize

In fact, a few weeks after Boris Johnson announced the draconian restrictions on life and livelihood, I wrote on these pages that fears of a second global economic crisis had been overcome and that, with the right spirit, Britain would quickly get back on its feet.

But as the months passed and we sank into indolence, my optimism waned.

Recent figures suggest that our economy contracted 20 percent in the first three months of the lockdown, a far worse decline than other developed countries like the US and Germany.

Most experts believe the worst is yet to come. The Bank of England forecasts that unemployment will hit 2.5 million by the end of the year. And even that may be too optimistic.

Despite these dire predictions and the need to get the nation up and running – and despite the good news of the dramatic drop in death rates and hospital admissions – parts of Britain remain near terminal paralysis.

The city centers are deserted, the local trains empty and the offices that are open work with skeletal staff. As a result, countless shops, pubs, restaurants, and cafes have not bothered to reopen – and may never do so.

Boris Johnson seemed to have disappeared without a trace – at least until the Mail tracked him down in a remote Scottish location this week.

The government does not appear to be in a position to provide leadership, and the public mood is one of argument and bitter negativity. There is little evidence of the optimistic spirit we desperately need to revive our national fate.

Sweden had a long-standing plan for a pandemic and would stick to it. In the picture, people are playing beach volleyball in Gardet Park amid the coronavirus outbreak in April

Sweden had a long-standing plan for a pandemic and would stick to it. In the picture, people are playing beach volleyball in Gardet Park amid the coronavirus outbreak in April

Two weeks ago, I got on the plane to the Swedish capital Stockholm with a sense of relief. Because in Sweden leaders kept shops and offices open all the time, insisting that the children go to school and still not telling their citizens to wear masks.

Still, I can't deny that I felt a touch of fear. As avid admirers of all things Scandinavian, we arranged our family vacation so that the coronavirus was just a glimmer in the eye of a Chinese bat. Occasionally I wondered if it might make sense to cancel this. But my wife, a much braver person than me, wouldn't hear about it.

And not to mention the attractions of cinnamon rolls, pristine forests, and sparkling Baltic waters, I was curious to see how the Swedes were doing.

For months, her country has been the big runaway, arousing both admiration and horror.

Some reports claimed that ordinary life was unchanged. Others, especially in left circles, attacked Sweden as a dystopian disaster zone, as if the streets were littered with unburied bodies.

The author of the country's coronavirus strategy, a meek state epidemiologist named Anders Tegnell, has become one of the most controversial men in Europe.

From the start, he insisted that mandatory lockdown was a waste of time. Sweden has a long-standing plan for a pandemic, Tegnell said, and will stick with it.

People should be sensible, wash their hands, avoid public transport and keep a safe distance, but that was it.

The closure of schools was "meaningless". Closing borders was "ridiculous". Masks were by and large a waste of time. Shops and restaurants should remain open.

And when interviewers asked why Sweden is not following Germany, France and the UK on the lockdown, Mr Tegnell had a solid answer. Other countries panic. But panic wasn't the Swedish way.

Even as the virus spread, death rates rose and hospitals in Italy and Spain were overwhelmed, Sweden held onto its guns. No blocking.

The results were not perfect. Like us, the Swedes did not protect their nursing homes.

When I landed in Stockholm, their death rate was almost 57 per 100,000 people, far worse than in neighboring Nordic countries.

To be fair, Sweden, with three large cities in Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö, is sometimes more densely populated than most of Norway, Denmark and Finland.

And Sweden's death rate is still lower than Belgium (87 per 100,000 people), Spain (62), Great Britain (62) and Italy (58) – all of them have been banned.

What did I do with it? It is easy. After Britain's negativity, paranoia, moaning, and arguing, Sweden was paradise.

The contrast hit me in the supermarket almost immediately. Usually the sky-high Scandinavian prices make me wince in fear.

But I barely noticed her this time, too busy enjoying the lack of lines in front of the store, the lack of masks and the generally relaxed atmosphere.

Nobody shrank back when our car was only five meters away from them. Nor did people shrink in fear when another shopper appeared in the aisle, as is common in UK supermarkets these days.

That set the tone for the next two weeks. Summer life has continued normally for the Swedes. Maybe people give strangers a little more distance than usual – but so sensibly, so discreetly that you hardly noticed.

When we were kayaking in the beautiful Stockholm archipelago, the guide informed us that it was fully booked over the weekend even though the number of foreign tourists had decreased.

The death rate in Sweden is still lower than in Belgium (87 per 100,000), Spain (62), Great Britain (62) and Italy (58) - all of them have been banned

The death rate in Sweden is still lower than in Belgium (87 per 100,000), Spain (62), Great Britain (62) and Italy (58) – all of them have been banned

When we visited the stunning Baltic island of Gotland, a kind of Scandinavian version of Cornwall, the Christmas season was in full swing. The restaurants were full and we often needed a booking to get in. Yes, we were offered hand sanitizer on arrival but there wasn't a great song or dance about it.

Since most Swedes speak excellent English, we have often asked people what they made of it. And the answers were always the same.

Yes, they were sorry the virus got into their nursing homes. But without exception, the Swedes were happy to have escaped the lockdown.

At that point, when the A-Level chaos was beginning to unfold at home, I felt unhappy at the prospect of returning.

But maybe the Swedish experience was too good to be true? I looked at the latest numbers to find out.

On August 3rd, the day we arrived in Stockholm, only one Swedish person is said to have died of Covid-19. The death toll the next day was three. The following day was 13; then it was six.

According to Sebastian Rushworth, an American-born doctor in an A&E department in Stockholm, he has not seen a single Covid 19 patient in a month: "Basically," he writes, "Covid is over in all practical senses and done." Sweden. 'So Britain should have followed the Swedish example?

An obvious counter-argument is that Britain, with almost 70 million inhabitants, is even more densely populated than Sweden's ten million. Maybe we always needed some kind of lockdown, if only temporarily.

In every other respect, however, the comparison shows us in an almost embarrassing light.

In the first three months, the Swedish economy contracted by around 9 percent – less than half the downturn in our own economy. Our children stayed at home; You went to school. Our shops closed; theirs remained open. Our social and cultural life came to a standstill; hers continued – with some reasonable qualifications.

Above, the difference couldn't be more obvious. Sweden's scientists drew up a plan and their government calmly followed it.

Even as international criticism of his tactics increased, Mr. Tegnell remained calm. He kept repeating that there was no point in panicking, not making philanthropic gestures, and not committing economic suicide.

Compare this to the British politicians who flutter around like drunkards at the end of the day, turning politics around and constantly being drawn into increasingly stringent measures to appease public hysteria.

But maybe it's too easy to blame Boris Johnson & Co – who, after all, are just a reflection of the society they serve. Mr Tegnell's approach worked because the Swedes are a serious, sensible and law abiding group that believe in individual responsibility and can rely on them to behave.

Compare that again to the scenes here: first the panic buying of toilet paper; then the punches in supermarket aisles and parking garages; the absurd crowds on the beaches of the south coast; Even the mobs of "anti-racist" anarchists who thought a pandemic was the ideal time to romp and rave. All pretty miserable, I know.

And I cannot deny that when we flew back to face a fortnightly quarantine, I felt clearly depressed, not only at the thought of all those blown masks, but also at the prospect of all the whining and arguments on the left ahead of the right, political incompetence and general irresponsibility.

In the Scandinavian spirit, here is a positive note at the end.

As tragic as the UK death toll was, it has not come close to the 250,000 predicted by Professor Neil Ferguson's apocalyptic model, which reportedly inspired Boris Johnson's decision to impose a lockdown.

What did I do with it? It is easy. After Britain's negativity, paranoia, moaning, and arguing, Sweden was paradise

What did I do with it? It is easy. After Britain's negativity, paranoia, moaning, and arguing, Sweden was paradise

The death rate has been falling for months – a 95 percent decrease from the April peak. Coronavirus victims are now six times lower than deaths from flu and pneumonia. In the week ending July 31, only 2.2 percent of deaths in England and Wales were caused by Covid.

Children do not seem to have the virus or spread it. It is known that only one healthy child has died of Covid in the UK and there is not a single case in the world of a child giving the virus to a teacher.

We know who is most at risk (the very old, the very fat people of Caribbean and Asian backgrounds, or with underlying problems like diabetes and lung disease), and our clinicians are much better at treating and managing the disease.

In other words, there is no reason UK politicians cannot change the record – and they must do it quickly, even if it disrupts their precious holidays.

For too long we have been ruled by paranoia. However, economic logic and common sense dictate that we cannot be paralyzed for a minute longer.

The priority now must be to restart the company's engines and rebuild the economy. Life is always at risk. As long as we are sensible, we need to get back to normal and get rid of our national radio.

So now is the time – albeit belatedly – for Boris Johnson to take a call to arms.

He may think of himself as the reincarnation of Churchill, but so far he has failed to match the great man's courage in a time of national crisis. Now, more than ever, he must shed his caution and gather the nation together.

The truth is that for many of us the past few months have been a long vacation from reality. But summer is almost over and the economy is life sustaining. It's time we got back to work.

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