Injured Prime Minister and struggling economy force England to ‘become Swedish’ on Covid | Larry Elliott
gGovernment policy vis-à-vis Covid-19 has come full circle. For now, at least, England has returned to the Swedish way of dealing with the pandemic. The severe and officially imposed blockades are over. Trusting people to do the right thing is back.
It remains to be seen whether this approach will survive the expected increase in hospitalizations due to the Christmas and New Years revelry. Boris Johnson is the master of the howling U-turn and with the number of infections reaching new records, the pressure on Downing Street for action is increasing. We have been here before.
At the very start of the pandemic, the Prime Minister intended to copy Sweden, a country with few restrictions and decided early on that it had to learn to live with the virus.
The Prime Minister’s flirtation with the “Swedish experience” was brief, and at the end of March 2020 a draconian lockdown was imposed. Ministers knew it would have a disastrous impact on the economy, but felt the risk of the NHS being overwhelmed left them no choice.
An article published in the online journal Scientific Reports last year examined what would have happened if Britain had followed the Swedish approach. Even assuming the public here would have been as willing to buy into the non-mandatory recommendations as the Swedes (a pretty big assumption), the UK death rate would have at least doubled.
This time, the decision is much less clear-cut, in particular because the vaccines offer protection against the virus. The news from South Africa, one of the countries where Omicron first surfaced, was also encouraging. Although more transmissible, the new variant resulted in fewer hospitalizations and deaths. The number of cases, after increasing rapidly, began to decline.
Some caution is needed when comparing the two countries, as South Africa has a much younger population than Britain, and it is summer rather than midwinter there. . Even so, it is clear that the government has set the bar high to impose further restrictions.
The Prime Minister’s weakened political position is one of the reasons the government became Swedish. The risk of causing serious damage to the economy when it appears particularly vulnerable is another, as this year promises to be difficult for the British public. Inflation is rising, interest rates are rising, and energy bills are expected to explode in the spring, just as Rishi Sunak’s increase in national insurance premiums takes effect.
The cumulative effect is a huge reduction in the standard of living. According to the Resolution Foundation think tank, the situation for the average household will be £ 1,000 a year worse. The most modest will be particularly affected by the surge in gas and electricity bills.
Under the circumstances, it’s easy to see why the government is reluctant to add to the economic pain by imposing tighter restrictions to slow the spread of the Omicron variant. New brakes mean slower growth and a blow to public finances. They would also test the resilience of the labor market.
The Swedes have been criticized a lot for their autonomous approach. While death rates were well below initial pessimistic forecasts, they were still higher than in neighboring Scandinavian countries, where strict restrictions were imposed. Moreover, the initial blow to the economy was as severe in liberal Sweden as it was in locked Denmark.
That said, as the second anniversary of the arrival of Covid approaches, governments are starting to see merit in the Swedish approach. Part of the reason is that Sweden now has a lower death rate than countries that have gone the full lockdown route, including the UK, France, Spain and Italy. It is in the bottom half of the EU ranking for deaths after controlling for population size. The economic recovery has been fairly rapid. The UK is still struggling to return to pre-Covid production levels: Sweden had achieved this by mid-2021.
But there are other factors as well. Sweden has avoided the problem of lockdown fatigue and has not hurt its children’s life chances as schools have remained open throughout the pandemic.
All of this suggests that the scientific reports document will not be the last word on the Swedish experience. There have been few valuable benefits to the pandemic, but one of them is that it has generated rich country-by-country data for academics in all disciplines – epidemiologists, economists, educators, sociologists – to examine and discuss.
Even within countries, different approaches have been tried. The four constituent nations of the United Kingdom have exercised their own powers, so it should soon be possible to assess the impact of the closure of nightclubs in Scotland and Wales, but not England, for New Years Eve. New Years. EU countries have varied in their approach, while the US offers 50 states to study.
What is clear is that no country did everything right and all of them made mistakes, which is not surprising given that they did not expect a global pandemic. It is also evident, over time, that governments – whether in London, Edinburgh, Rome or Paris – are reluctant to tighten restrictions. In a way, it’s a backwards compliment for the Swedes to maybe be on to something early on.