State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell (L) of the Public Health Agency of Sweden speaks during a news conference on a daily update on the coronavirus Covid-19 situation, in Stockholm, Sweden, on June 3, 2020. Picture: ANDERS WIKLUND / AFP
State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell (L) of the Public Health Agency of Sweden speaks during a news conference on a daily update on the coronavirus Covid-19 situation, in Stockholm, Sweden, on June 3, 2020. Picture: ANDERS WIKLUND / AFP

Stockholm — The scientist behind Sweden’s controversial Covid-19 strategy says there is no need to change course, despite admitting that a different response earlier on might have saved lives.

Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, triggered international headlines on Wednesday when he told a local broadcaster he would have adopted a different model to contain the virus at its onset, had he known then what he knows now.

The admission prompted members of Sweden’s government to speak out, with the health minister, Lena Hallengren, demanding clarity. Tegnell “still can’t give an exact answer on what other measures should have been taken”, she told local media. Prime Minister Stefan Lofven has promised an inquiry into Sweden’s response to Covid-19.

But in an interview in Stockholm on Wednesday, Tegnell said he has no regrets, and is “still confident” that Sweden’s strategy “is working, in broad terms. But like any strategy, it needs to be adapted all the time.”

The strategy

Tegnell is the mastermind behind Sweden’s controversial approach to fighting the virus, and the government has deferred to him in its handling of the pandemic. Gatherings of more than 50 people continue to be banned, but throughout the crisis Swedes have been able to visit restaurants, go shopping, attend gyms and send children under 16 to school.

Tegnell says he thinks it is now clear that closing primary schools was unnecessary, which he considers a key takeaway from the crisis.

But at 44 deaths per 100,000, Sweden’s mortality rate is among the highest globally and far exceeds rates in neighbouring Denmark and Norway, which imposed much tougher lockdowns early on. Like elsewhere, the virus hit Sweden’s oldest citizens hardest.

“We could have been better at protecting our care facilities. We could probably have tested a bit more than we did in the very beginning,” Tegnell said. More controversially, he rejects face masks as a useful protection against the virus. The evidence on face masks is “extremely vague”, he said.

Despite the controversy, Tegnell’s strategy has enjoyed widespread support in Sweden. But with many other EU countries now rolling back their lockdowns after appearing to bring Covid-19 under control, there are signs that Sweden may be left behind.

That’s starting to mean less freedom of movement for Swedes, as some EU countries, including Cyprus and the Czech Republic, restrict access to people coming from what are deemed high-risk Covid zones. The Czechs lump travellers from Sweden and the UK into a “red group”, meaning they pose the highest risk.

Universal health care

Crucial to Sweden’s approach to fighting Covid-19 is its universal health-care system, Tegnell said. “It makes a huge difference.” Despite Sweden’s high mortality rate, its hospitals have at no point been overwhelmed, and a field hospital erected at a convention centre in the capital has gone unused.

Ultimately, handling a crisis like Covid-19 requires regular adjustment if a country is to succeed in fighting it back, Tegnell said.

“There are always improvements that can be made,” he said. “Anybody who has been working with Covid-19 would say the same thing. Because if you don’t improve with what you learn, you will never improve.”

Bloomberg