Government policy towards Covid-19 has come full circle. For now, at least, England has returned to the Swedish way of dealing with the pandemic. Tough, officially imposed lockdowns are out. Trusting the people to do the sensible thing is back in.
Whether this approach will survive the expected surge in hospitalisations from Christmas and New Year revelries remains to be seen. Boris Johnson is the master of the screeching U-turn and with the number of infections hitting new records pressure on Downing Street to act is growing. We have been here before.
Back in the early days of the pandemic the prime minister was minded to copy Sweden, a country that imposed few restrictions and decided early on that it needed to learn to live with the virus.
The prime minister’s flirtation with the “Swedish experiment” was brief, and at the end of March 2020 a draconian lockdown was imposed. Ministers knew this would have a dire impact on the economy but felt the risk of the NHS being overwhelmed left them no choice.
A paper published in the magazine Nature last year examined what would have happened had Britain followed the Swedish approach. Even assuming the public here would have been as willing to adhere to non-mandatory recommendations as the Swedes (a pretty big assumption) the UK death rate would have at least doubled.
This time, the decision is a lot less clearcut, not least because vaccines are providing protection from the virus. The news from South Africa, one of the countries where Omicron first surfaced, has also been encouraging. While more transmissible, the new variant has resulted in fewer hospitalisations and deaths. Case numbers, after rising rapidly, have started to decline.
A degree of caution is needed when comparing the two countries, because South Africa has a much younger population than Britain, and it is summer rather than the middle of winter there. Even so, it is clear the government has set a high bar for imposing further restrictions.
The prime minister’s weakened political position is one reason the government has gone Swedish. The risk of causing serious damage to the economy when it is looking particularly vulnerable is another, because this is going to be a tough year for the British public. Inflation is rising, interest rates are going up, and energy bills are expected to rocket in the spring just as Rishi Sunak’s increase in national insurance contributions comes into force.
The cumulative effect is a whopping cut to living standards. According to the Resolution Foundation thinktank the average household is going to be £1,000 a year worse off. Those on the lowest incomes will be especially hard hit by soaring gas and electricity bills.
In the circumstances, it is easy to see why the government is reluctant to add to the economic pain by imposing tougher restrictions to slow the spread of the Omicron variant. Fresh curbs mean slower growth and a hit to the public finances. They would also test the resilience of the labour market.
The Swedes came in for a lot of criticism for their go-it-alone approach. While death rates were much lower than the initial pessimistic forecasts, they were still higher than in neighbouring Scandinavian countries, where tough restrictions were imposed. Moreover, the initial hit to the economy was as severe in liberal Sweden as it was in locked-down Denmark.
That said, as the second anniversary of Covid’s arrival looms, governments are beginning to see merits in the Swedish approach. In part, that’s because Sweden now has a lower death rate than countries that went down the full lockdown route, including the UK, France, Spain and Italy. It is in the bottom half of the EU league table for deaths once the size of population is taken into account. Economic recovery has been pretty brisk. The UK is still struggling to get back to pre-Covid levels of output: Sweden had managed that by the middle of 2021.
But there are other factors, too. Sweden has avoided the problem of lockdown fatigue and has not caused damage to the life chances of its children because schools were kept open throughout the pandemic.
All of which suggests the Nature paper will not be the last word on the Swedish experiment. There have been precious few upsides to the pandemic but one of them is that it has thrown up rich country-by-country data for academics from all disciplines – epidemiologists, economists, educationalists, sociologists – to examine and argue about.
Even within countries different approaches have been tried. The four constituent nations of the UK have exercised their own powers, so it should soon be possible to assess the impact of closing nightclubs in Scotland and Wales, but not in England, for New Year’s Eve. EU countries have varied in their approach, while the US provides 50 states to study.
What is clear is that no one country got everything right and all made mistakes, unsurprisingly enough given they weren’t expecting a global pandemic. It is also obvious, as time passes, that governments – be they in London, Edinburgh, Rome or Paris – are only tightening restrictions with reluctance. In a way, that’s a backhanded compliment to the Swedes for perhaps being on to something right from the start.