X Close

Anders Tegnell’s lesson for the Covid Inquiry Sweden's former State Epidemiologist is still being ignored

Tegnell in October this year (JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images)

Tegnell in October this year (JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images)


December 20, 2023   4 mins

After thousands of hours of political inquisition and motivated reasoning, the UK Covid Inquiry has finally allowed mention of the single most important control group in the global lockdown experiment: Sweden. A written submission by former State Epidemiologist of Sweden Anders Tegnell, published in a dump of more than 700 documents on the final day before the Christmas recess, contains a barrage of uncomfortable facts delivered in typical Nordic deadpan.

Tegnell, both revered and reviled as the architect of Sweden’s more laissez-faire Covid response, begins by restating the fundamentals in answer to a series of written questions. What was Sweden’s approach to lockdowns? “No formal lockdown used.” What about so-called “circuit-breaker” mini lockdowns? “None used.” And what was the overall result in terms of excess deaths, or the number of people who died as a result of the Covid period? “Excess mortality differs slightly depending on the method but Sweden is at the same level as the Nordic countries and sometimes lower. The UK has a considerably higher excess mortality.” Ouch.

Frankly, Dr Tegnell needn’t have said anything else. The combination of these two datapoints alone — that the only country in Europe to avoid lockdowns entirely emerged with the lowest excess death count of the whole continent — should be enough for any fair-minded evaluation of the evidence to conclude that lockdowns were a mistake. The minimum evidential threshold for a policy experiment so radical and so destructive to society must surely be that it definitely saved lives; this threshold was not met, and in fact the Swedish example suggests that the policy may well have cost lives in the longer term.

The reason the inquiry invited Dr Tegnell to answer questions was to convict Boris Johnson of recklessness in not imposing a second lockdown sooner in September 2020. Tegnell attended a now-famous Zoom meeting with Johnson and Sunak alongside Professors Sunetra Gupta, Carl Heneghan and John Edmunds in that month, to hear from alternative voices. The theory is that they delayed the autumn lockdown in part as a result of this meeting.

In his evidence to the inquiry, Tegnell meticulously avoids the traps being set for him, insisting that on the Zoom call he shared information about the Swedish experience but avoided giving specific advice about whether the UK should lock down or not. Indeed, in a memo written to the UK government at the time and shared with the inquiry this week, he concludes that the UK should take action of some kind, but in doing so should be guided by evidence.

“The short answer to the question [of whether the UK government should intervene] is in my opinion yes,” he wrote in September 2020. “The myth that Sweden did nothing during the pandemic is false. We have initiated a wide range of activities not least in the area of communication.” There was advice to work from home where possible, for example, and to self-isolate while you are symptomatic.

But throughout, Tegnell relentlessly places emphasis on the need for evidence: if he was not convinced that a particular measure provably worked (for example mandating face masks) he refused to introduce it. As a result, except a few notices on trains for some months in 2021, Sweden avoided face-masks entirely.

Perhaps the most interesting section of Dr Tegnell’s evidence is his analysis of the impact of the Swedish constitution. Unlike in most parliamentary democracies including the UK, Swedish politicians are forbidden from interfering in the work of the government agencies, including the health agency:

“The Government sets out the objectives of the agencies’ activities and how much money they have available to them… but it has no powers to interfere with how an agency applies the law or decides in a specific case… In many other countries, a minister has the power to intervene directly in an agency’s day-to-day operations. This possibility does not exist in Sweden, as ‘ministerial rule’ is prohibited.”

In other words, the real reason Sweden resisted the global rush to lockdowns in 2020 was that its technocrats (such as Tegnell) were all-powerful. Where politicians are instantly vulnerable to media narratives, public opinion and political pressure, the Swedish agencies were constitutionally protected from these influences. They had a plan, and they stuck to it. In other contexts, I can attest, the Swedish insistence on sticking to the rules can be quite maddening; but in 2020 it saved the day. It’s a paradox that will not sit well with many anti-lockdown campaigners who see the evil technocracy as the problem, and want to sweep away the “blob”.

Further, Sweden’s constitution has a specific approach to crisis management, designed precisely to avoid power-grabs by governments during a crisis. It enshrines three principles: responsibility (in which the normal regional authorities retain their jurisdiction during a crisis), similarity (business-as-usual as an explicit virtue and goal, so that policies during a crisis should be as similar to normal as possible), and proximity (meaning that the lowest devolved authority should retain responsibility unless that is absolutely impossible, to avoid central government taking over.) It is a rubric specifically designed to avoid power-grabs by the centre during so-called emergencies. Tegnell continues:

“Sweden’s constitutional order does not allow for the declaration of a state of emergency. Fundamental civil rights and freedoms can only be suspended in the case of war. Public health emergencies are therefore regulated by ordinary law… It is legally impossible to enforce a general quarantine or “lockdown” measures.”

So, even if the Swedish politicians had buckled to international pressure and called for lockdowns, they would have been constitutionally unable to impose them.

If the Covid Inquiry were actually interested in preparing for future crises, this lesson from Anders Tegnell is a profound one. It points in the opposite direction to the “muscular” Asian-style central government so revered by Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove. It suggests that if you want to protect people during a so-called crisis, keep the politicians out of it, slow the spread of panic and enshrine in law the virtue of “keep calm and carry on”. It used to be considered a British virtue; a Covid inquiry that was more connected to reality might have rediscovered it.


Freddie Sayers is the Editor-in-Chief & CEO of UnHerd. He was previously Editor-in-Chief of YouGov, and founder of PoliticsHome.

freddiesayers

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

88 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
J Bryant
J Bryant
6 months ago

I will always be grateful to Unherd for its covid coverage during the pandemic. A model of calm, rational journalism that shamed the legacy media.
A steadfast devotion to the data is what’s required to manage a pandemic response, and a willingness to rationally balance competing interests, such as immediate preservation of some life versus long-term effects on society and health.
Whether a national government or local technocrats manage a pandemic doesn’t matter much, imo, provided the responsible people are driven by data and not ideology. Sadly, given that our universities are now so ideologically driven, I’m not confident future leaders of any stripe can be trusted to manage a pandemic dispassionately and logically.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
6 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Most of the time. However some articles even on Unherd, notably “Britain’s booster plan won’t work” by Tom Chivers on December 14th 2021, remain as testimony to the hysteria of that dreadful period.

J Bryant
J Bryant
6 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Do you have a link to that article? I’ve searched under Unherd’s “Our Writers” section but Chivers isn’t listed there. Does Unherd have a search engine for all past articles?

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
6 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

It comes up if you just Google it.

J Bryant
J Bryant
6 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Thanks.

Jason Smith
Jason Smith
6 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

I remember reading the Tom Chivers article at the time and I have just reread to remind myself. I cannot see how, in any context, you could call that article hysterical. It is a reflection of the facts and uncertainty that existed at the time. If you want hysterical, go and read articles in the Guardian from that period

Last edited 6 months ago by Jason Smith
Jerry Smith
Jerry Smith
6 months ago
Reply to  Jason Smith

Agree. I read several of his articles and, while he entirely failed to convince me, it was helpful to see any kind of scientific justification for lockdowns set out. Open debate was (and remains) one of the greatest casualties of the pandemic period and it doesn’t help for either side to dismiss the other’s arguments out of hand.

Iris C
Iris C
6 months ago
Reply to  Jason Smith

I am particularly impressed by the fact that it is the technocrats at the local level who make decisions, and are thus not subjected to voter and press hysteria.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
6 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Chivers was run out of town by Unherd commenters.

Marcus Corbett
Marcus Corbett
6 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Chivers sat on the fence when there was no need to. Naked opportunism as he further stoked animus.
The basic propositions as championed by Tegnell (and one didn’t have to be a doctor to understand why) Chivers ignored while writing what appeared to be sophisticated stuff which simply led us all into the weeds as we suffocated in the lockdown

Mark Goodhand
Mark Goodhand
6 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Chivers was a wrong’un

Mustard Clementine
Mustard Clementine
6 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Sometimes I actually wonder if, in arguing against measures like lockdowns and vaccine passports, we in opposition let the conversation become too fixated on data and specifics, losing sight of the broader context. Perhaps our focus should have been more on the moral stance, akin to rejecting a treatment that cures cancer but kills the patient. Essentially, if arguments should have centered more on the fact that, regardless of the numbers or effectiveness, such measures were wrong on principle.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
6 months ago

Most people don’t care about principles. They literally don’t grasp the concept at all, and put no value on any freedom (their own, and certainly anyone else’s) if they believe themselves to be at risk. It was only when most people actually got Covid that the magic spell wore off.

Ralph Hanke
Ralph Hanke
6 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Dear Stephen, I respectfully disagree. I think most people are very driven by principles.

And even so we can still ask: “what is the quality of a given principle?” and judge people’s behavior based on an answer to that question.

For example, the principles of equitable outcomes versus equitable opportunity. I, for one, think the latter makes sense but the former does not.

We might say Wilt Chamberlain should be allowed to try his hand at being a jockey and Sandy Hawley should be free to try to make it at basketball. The principle of equitable opportunity.

But, the equitable outcome principle states Chamberlain should win the triple crown and Hawley should win the NBA scoring championship.

Blind adherence to the equity principle leads to absurd conclusions like this. And yet many people’s behaviors are driven by adherence to the equity principle.

Merry Christmas to all.

jules Ritchie
jules Ritchie
6 months ago
Reply to  Ralph Hanke

The Chamberlain/Hawley example is a joke obviously.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
5 months ago
Reply to  Ralph Hanke

I agree that people are generally led by principles but many hold principles that have not been shaped by intelligent reason and many will let principles slip if they think their lives are at risk.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
6 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

I think that many people put too much value on freedom and, in order to be their own authority, will abandon principles too easily.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
6 months ago

Incorrect. This argument was frequently made.

Last edited 6 months ago by Lesley van Reenen
laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
6 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Unfortunately, the quality of science has plummeted in recent years. The scientific community is in the midst of a “reproducability crisis” over the veracity of a great deal of peer-reveiwed, published work. Also, more and more “work” is just statistical analyses of other people’s papers, easily subject to data selection biases.
We’re in a pickle!

James Atkinson
James Atkinson
6 months ago

As an Australian, i marvel at the social, political and media dynamics and the general atmosphere of sangfroid that must have existed to allow them to take the path they took.
Here, like the UK it seems, it was utter hysterics from Day One. And if you weren’t walking around outside with masks, dobbing on your neighbours, and declaring your undying support for the premiers and bureaucrats, than frankly, you were a bit of a weirdo.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
6 months ago
Reply to  James Atkinson

When we still lived up in New England at the beginning of this entire farce, our across-the-street neighbor came to our house to urge on us masks she made from her family’s old bathing suits (yes, we made that face, too). We politely declined, but she was insistent. We were firm in our refusal. She started yelling about dying babies and my normally mild-mannered husband told her to get the f*ck off our property. The entire town became like her.
We moved to Florida.

B M
B M
6 months ago

If she was actually afraid, what was she doing risking her and her families lives visiting you in the first place? Make it make sense !!!!

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
6 months ago
Reply to  James Atkinson

Not to mention banging saucepans for the NHS. As if that might stop it from being ‘overwhelmed’ like it is every winter there’s a bit of flu about.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
6 months ago

“In his evidence to the inquiry, Tegnell meticulously avoids the traps being set for him, insisting that on the Zoom call he shared information about the Swedish experience but avoided giving specific advice about whether the UK should lock down or not.”
If I saw that I was about to be used as a tool in a witch-hu…sorry – INQUIRY that only wanted to reach one outcome, then I’d do that too. Smart bloke.
“and enshrine in law the virtue of “keep calm and carry on”.
Good luck with that. The law is a reflection of a people’s mentality; you can’t use the law to create a mentality. It doesn’t work like that. At least not in the short/medium term.

Last edited 6 months ago by Katharine Eyre
Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
6 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Absolutely. If we’ve learned anything in recent years, it is that the law is whatever judges say it is, regardless of the apparent literal meaning of the words in legislation. And so the if the prevailing attitude in the milieu from which judges are drawn supports a particular political view, the law will follow.

Arkadian Arkadian
Arkadian Arkadian
6 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

A bit like when they state that women are men and viceversa.

D Glover
D Glover
6 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Spot on. It’s a witch hunt, and its only purpose is to burn the government at the stake.
They’re not asking where the virus came from, or whether there was any point to lockdown, or masks. They’ve already decided.
This is astonishing;
https://www.spiked-online.com/2023/12/20/the-shameless-cover-up-of-the-lab-leak-theory/

Last edited 6 months ago by D Glover
Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
6 months ago
Reply to  D Glover

It’s a pretty safe assumption that the virus came from the lab and was the result of work clandestinely financed by the US health bureaucracy. But that can never be acknowledged for the obvious reason that it makes the US liable for the largest corporate manslaughter in history.

D Glover
D Glover
6 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Just the US? The Chinese are guilty of, at least, obfuscation.
They were doing the work at too low a level of biosecurity.
Then they kept quiet and they kept the international flights going out.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
6 months ago
Reply to  D Glover

Fair point. But just try launching a class action against Xi and his cronies.

B M
B M
6 months ago
Reply to  D Glover

Enthusiastically helped by the US

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
6 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

According to some, including Rand Paul and RFK Jr., – work is currently being done – in labs here in the USA – aerosolizing Ebola.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
6 months ago

And people say climate change is the biggest risk we face.

Kasandra H
Kasandra H
6 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Quite agree with the comment that the law is a reflection of a people’s mentality but the law can also be used to hasten into being a people’s mentality over time with different polices and issues eg. Clim ate change and that’s the real danger of it, especially when fear and learned helplessness come into play with a lack of accurate impartial info. People can get addicted to fear over time and even now, are still very scared of Covid. The truth didn’t come to light and people’s perception didn’t change much about the failings of the past few years. X

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
6 months ago
Reply to  Kasandra H

I was thinking more in terms of laws to stop littering, the use of CFCs etc: back in the 80s, you had chewing gum and rubbish everywhere on the floor and CFCs were used in all kinds of things. Awareness of their negative implications, campaigns, changes in packaging and legislation changed people’s behaviour…which you might now call a change in mentality and culture. So, law can change culture like that.
But trying to legislate for wholesale shifts in basic attitude, as in “everyone needs to read Kipling’s ‘If’ and collectively calm the eff down”…perhaps not.

Last edited 6 months ago by Katharine Eyre
G K
G K
6 months ago

“..that will not sit well with many anti-lockdown campaigners who see the evil technocracy as the problem..”
No, it will not sit well, for a simple reason that the individual agencies are lacking the broad perspective that the gov’t supposed to exercise. Individual agencies are focused, as they should be, on their narrow areas, so their paramount concern during pandemics is to stop the spread by any measures available. Period. The only conclusion in regards to Sweden’s success is that Sweden was lucky to have Anders Tegnell this time. Next time might be very different.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
6 months ago
Reply to  G K

Indeed. And though I am ‘in science’ myself, I think that the pandemic showed that scientists have a blind spot. Because they (‘we’) are in the business of understanding, of making and using models of the world, they have a bias towards overreliance on their current models., After all, without them they have nothing, and that is particularly hard for people who get their satisfaction from understanding what is going on. Her, weird as it may sound, politicians may have an advantage, since they should be better used to taking important decisions under high uncertainty. Or businessmen, perhaps. Though of course that does presuppose that the politicians actually care about anything more than their own ego-satisfaction, or their re-election prospects.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
6 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Thank you for this comment Rasmus. It shows quite some admirable humility and awareness. The pronouns “we” and “they” are perhaps, of all the pronouns, the most confused and conflated in the English language. It’s not just scientists who are in the business of understanding, and meaning-making, it’s everyone; and we all have a bias towards over-reliance on our existing scientific, mental, or other such models. You and me both. We are all as stubborn as mules, and perhaps that’s being unfair to mules.

For what it is worth, I think the Swedish approach of technocrats with clearly defined objectives, insulated from the worlds of politics – and money, and flag-waving virtue-signalling, and many and various kinds of righteous & self-serving ideologies of justice and equity – is probably amongst the least worst there can be, provided its integrity can be maintained against all of those forces that profane all that is holy, and make all that is solid melt into air, and turn once-trusted institutions into narrative-based lie factories (cf what happened to the WHO).

Ultimately though technocracy can only be as good as the technocrats who populate it; its integrity depends on their personal integrity, and their courage to stick to their guns and stay focused on what they supposed to be doing, without fear and without favour. As far as I can discern, whether you agree or disagree with what he thinks about for example lockdowns, Tegnell is an exemplar of personal integrity.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
6 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

Actually, it was Sweden that convinced me that scientists (like Tegnell) should not be in ultimate charge. When COVID was just coming up, the Tegnell-equivalents in Denmark were extremely reassuring. After all, they said, COVID was no big deal, and even if it was it would never reach Europe, and even if it did it would not cause much damage. ‘Nothing to see here guys’. Which was not really true. was it now? The Swedish health authorities have done their share of weird press releases, I seem to remember, promoting strange assumptions about who had already had COVID, all to prove that nothing more needed doing.

The way I read it, we had these people who have already decided how things should be handled, based on normal flu epidemics. And when something new comes up, they stick to their preconceived notions and their preconceived plan. They do not consider the possibility that what they know might not apply, because if it does not they are lost at sea without a paddle, and that does not feel nice. I am strongly in favour of leaving decisions to people who know what they are doing, and are socialised to solve the problems, instead of someone who has just breezed in from MacKinsey or Eton and thinks he knows it all. But it only works as long as we are actually in known territory. When decisions are urgent and information is scarce you need someone who is better able to deal with teh uncertainty.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
6 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

The issue in the UK seems to be that the government effectively outsourced decision-making to a panel of scientist/technocrats (SAGE),  focused, as GK says above ‘on their narrow areas, so their paramount concern during pandemics is to stop the spread by any measures available’.
There was no diversity on that panel (surprisingly given that this is the buzzword of the age), no-one from other disciplines who could provide a wider perspective on the risks of lockdowns and other NPIs. So having made its bed, the government was forced to sleep in it. Ignoring SAGE advice would have been potentially career-ending for a politician, although ironically many have had their careers ended anyway after following SAGE advice to the letter.

Friedrich Tellberg
Friedrich Tellberg
6 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

I guess a normal flue epidemic was the right model for handling covid after all? None of the “new” and enforced interventions made a big difference. The only difference from a flue epidemic was that a population had to go through several cycles of ever more contagious and ever less severe infections before some kind of herd immunity (or rather a harmless co-existence with the virus) was reached (and where a vaccine could “replace” a first infection for the very weak without making them very ill). A point that every one seems to have missed at the time. The model even among experts was that of a kind of measle virus that could be stopped circulating by infections and vaccinations.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
6 months ago

The point wasn’t missed at the time. What you’re describing was official policy until around mid-March 2020. Then Ferguson produced his dodgy model and the government (against Boris’s gut instinct it has to be said) did an about-turn and introduced draconian measures which had never even been discussed before, let alone tested in a real pandemic scenario.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
6 months ago

You are assuming that since it went (by your standards) reasonably all right, then it would also have been reasonably all right if we had handled it differently. The health service would not have been overwhelmed. There would not have been dead bodies stacking up in freezers and shortages of coffins. Not having vaccines before everybody got COVID for the first time would not have caused a lot more deaths. You have no way of knowing that – and making that assumption back when it mattered would be reckless optimism. Which was my opinion at the time: That Tegnell and the Swedes might well end up getting the best results – if they were lucky enough – but that they were gambling with people’s lives. I still think that.

Oh, please stop calling it ‘herd immunity’ That means something else, i.e. that so many are completely immune that the virus can no longer spread. That can and will never happen for COVID, And anyway, it is ‘flue’. ‘Flue’ means something else.

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
6 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Rasmus……this is a hell of an accusation that if directed to me would you have ending up in a court of law. You…..actually everybody reading these lines should read Johann Andenberg’s book. “ The Herd” . This would show you that not only wasn’t it a gamble with people’s lives, but a carefully thought and debated strategy by the people in charge.
Your PM on the other hand went against her civil servant’s advice of not closing schools down even claiming it was in their advice.
And in the end…….how many months of life saved with people who were going to die in the next few weeks or months anyway. Average age of death : 82.
How many more, younger, will, did…..die of cancer that were not detected …..or too late ? The danish strategy, the British, the French……have all but brought only fear among people, shattered the economy and sacrificed the life of thousand s of children. In a way, you make me think of old Scrooge…..fitting with the season.

Last edited 6 months ago by Bruno Lucy
Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
6 months ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

You sound way beyond reasonable argument. But I’ll try. How many cancer screenings do you think would have been happening while the doctors and nurses were getting sick with COVID, and the hospitals were filling with COVID patients? The lockdown was reducing the load on the health service. Unless of course it was decided that anyone over 80 should be denied medical care and banned from going into hospital, since their lives were not worth saving. Would you be in favour of that idea, by any chance?

B M
B M
6 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

The doctors and nurses got sick with COVID anyway, as they were mixing in the one place with the highest incidence of it.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
6 months ago
Reply to  B M

You are missing the point. Bruno Lucy is blaming the lockdown for cancer deaths. But that is assuming that if we had just let the epidemic rage on unhindered, the cancer screening program would have been working fine. And that is rubbish.

By all means let us make a comparison between alternative approaches, and see what we find. But for that to work, the alternatives need to be spelled out clearly and evaluated realistically, and you need to avoid hindsight and take into account how things might have happened – and just how uncertain are the estimates on the consequences of paths not taken. BL and all his Unherd friends are simply taking for granted that their original hunch was right, shamelessly cherrypicking the evidence, and yammering on about how it was always obvious they were right. Now is a time for reliable evidence – and BL and company are not even pretending to try.

Last edited 6 months ago by Rasmus Fogh
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
6 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

The science was in from very early on… COVID figures were distorted and inflated and the narrative sensationalised. Witness the Diamond Princess and the carnival town in Germany and Professor Hendrik Streeck. It seems to be that a hallmark of some scientists is clinging to an argument like a drowning man on a log – even when the evidence is in.

Last edited 6 months ago by Lesley van Reenen
Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
6 months ago

I’d very much agree that scientists tend to stick to their ideas until there is a lot of proof against it, and that they tend to overestimate how reliable their own theories are. Only Tegnell is very much one of the examples. The problem is that whatever you think it was *not* obvious from the start what was the right thing to do. Some people were certain of one thing, others were certain of the opposite. Most governments quite sensibly decided to plan for bad cases too, instead of picking the most optimistic scientists and gambling the house that they were right. And those whose intuition led them to go with the optimists are now pretending it obvious all along .

B M
B M
6 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

There was lots of evidence early on though. The Diamond Princess being one of the best ones.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
6 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

for the record:
It is flu (not flue) – and I cannot spell either

B M
B M
6 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

There was some rationale in lockdowns before people got vaccinated. There were none thereafter.
Also a better strategy would have been to put military around nursing homes and strictly test and quarantine staff and visitors. Pay the staff 10x their normal salary to live on site. This would actually have saved so many lives.
Hindsight is 20/20 though.

Last edited 6 months ago by B M
B M
B M
6 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

When I did my physics degree in the early 90s it was drummed into us that you make a hypothesis – a model in this case – and then test it via experiment, and using a control group. If it fails the test, then you conclude there is something wrong with your hypothesis and come up with another one. Has science changed since I went to uni?
The mental gymnastics of some eminent “scientists” to justify lockdowns, and even worse, a zero COVID strategy, was astonishing to behold. At the time it was “Sweden has a higher death toll than it’s Nordic neighbours” – which by the way, is no longer true – as if somehow COVID was racist and was less likely to infect the Scandanavian ubermenschen than say Brits or French. Absolutely mind boggling.

Last edited 6 months ago by B M
Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
6 months ago
Reply to  B M

Science still works like that. But the scientific approach means that if your model fails, you just move back to ‘I have not got a clue‘, and leave the question in suspense till proof has been found. If you are looking for reliable truth about the nature of pulsars, waiting for another fifty years till the dust clears is not a problem. If you have an epidemic running right now you cannot opt out. You are constrained to do something, right now, and whatever you do, or do not do, will have consequences.

In more practical terms: just because you cannot prove that lockdown is right, does not mean that it is not the best course of action after all, or that Tegnell or Gupta are right instead. There is no safe fall-back plan, you just have to evaluate the alternatives as best you can.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
6 months ago
Reply to  G K

Tegnell and company not only did the “right thing”; they did it very well.

Mrs R
Mrs R
6 months ago

Let’s face it, Sweden just got lucky to have someone with the moral fibre and calibre of Tegnell. Not sure there are that many around like him anymore. Seems like most are desperate to be liked and approved of by the MSM and dare not to against the grain.

Last edited 6 months ago by Mrs R
Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
6 months ago
Reply to  Mrs R

Anders Tegnell was the follower of Johann Gieseke who chose him precisely for his independence of mind being made of the same wood. Politicians disappear in the vacuum of elections, civil servants however are here for the long run.
you can be sure that lessons have been learned by the swedes but the legacy of this crisis will live on.
There was as much opposition from the Swedish press than in Britain and some 200 doctors throughout the county published an article strongly opposing Tegnell course of action. Thanks to the international press…..these 200 became 2000……and then…..20000. The German Handelsblatt correspondent was having his articles almost dictated by the chief editor in Germany…..lying and scaremongering. Same with the French press leading my family to anxiously call me to find out if I was about to expire my last breath.
Not only are the Swedes thankful to Tegnell but also very proud as a people for the way Sweden went. Of course, in a typical Swedish fashion, they will not boast about it and arty on with the business of the day.

Andrew Buckley
Andrew Buckley
6 months ago

Interesting stuff. But (and a big one) the UK is not Sweden.
Does anyone know what the reaction was from the press in Sweden around Spring 2020? In the UK whatever the Govt (or technocrats) decided to do or suggest would have been lambasted by one side or the other in the press and on TV.
Pragmatic practical suggestions of how to reduce the spread of the virus could only have been achieved with a really supportive press and i just cannot see any situation where that would happen in the UK. Shame really…….

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
6 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Buckley

The government does have a big influence on the Overton window of acceptable policies though. No matter what the government did, the media would have demanded they go further. So don’t go too far in the first place, and have the debate start there, rather than around more extreme measure. The issue in the UK was that Valance and Whitty took fright in March 2020 and abandoned the planned measures in the UK’s pandemic preparedness strategy. Technocrats are at least as subject to media pressure as ministers. Politicians are at least thinking as far as the next election. Valance and Whitty were only thinking as far as the next press conference and their next job application, and didn’t want to be outside the international mainstream. Without cover from the Chief Medical Officer, no Prime Minister could stand against some measure of lockdown.

Last edited 6 months ago by Stephen Walsh
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
6 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Buckley

The panic mongering of the TV and press media were indeed one of the most pernicious inputs into the decision making process. “Power without responsibility. The prerogative of harlots throughout the ages” as Stanley Baldwin put it.

Unfortunately the usual desire to garner viewers and readers by sensationalist reports was supplemented by the generally anti-Tory and particularly anti-Johnson biases of the fourth estate reporters. It was a chance to criticise the architect of Brexit for whatever he did. Nothing would have been enough until it was manifestly too much.

Last edited 6 months ago by Jeremy Bray
David Jory
David Jory
6 months ago

2 small points. Tegnell DID face a lot of political pressure. He is heroic because he resisted it both from abroad and at home.
Secondly,what the Swedes did was called the British Plan. They took our pandemic plan,but had the guts to hold firm.
Well done Anders Tegnell and his group.

Mustard Clementine
Mustard Clementine
6 months ago

I’m unsure if Sweden’s approach, allowing technocrats to make decisions without political interference, was more an anomaly that fortunately worked out rather than any kind of universally applicable rule. I suspect the success or failure of this approach (as with any) would very much hinge on the specific individuals involved, varying greatly with time and place.
From a Canadian perspective, I worry that with such a system, I might find myself in lockdown every “respiratory virus season”, as many of our technocrats now like to call winter. At the very least, it seems probable that seasonal mask mandates would become a permanent fixture here, given our health bureaucrats’ enduring belief in their necessity. I highly doubt that, if given more autonomy, they would have focused on curbing panic; rather, they might have escalated it. 
The fundamental issue, in my view, is that leaders, whether technocratic or political, across most countries, lacked the necessary reasoning or courage to balance various concerns, more often fixating myopically on a single issue at the expense of all others.

Last edited 6 months ago by Mustard Clementine
laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
6 months ago

Similar situation here in the US. It all quickly came down to the “risk averse” versus the “risk tolerant”. Unfortunately, for both the scientists and the politicians, extreme caution was a safer professional choice. So just when a bit of courage was called for our glorious leaders were hiding from their own shadows.

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
6 months ago

Reasoning AND courage

Rob N
Rob N
6 months ago

Although it MIGHT restrict the effectiveness of anti pandemic actions if/when a real epidemic arrives I have come to the conclusion that we need to to change the laws to never allow any lockdowns, vaccine mandates etc.

The risk of abuse is clearly too great and I believe that people would follow sensible suggested precautions anyway.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
6 months ago

This is a very interesting article that highlights information that is not generally publicised.
The key to successful implementation of sensible measures when faced with a Covid like pandemic and the panic induced thereby seems to be not simply to have independent technocrats taking the decisions but technocrats that take into account the sensible provisions of Sweden’s constitution as described here:
“Sweden’s constitution has a specific approach to crisis management, designed precisely to avoid power-grabs by governments during a crisis. It enshrines three principles: responsibility (in which the normal regional authorities retain their jurisdiction during a crisis), similarity (business-as-usual as an explicit virtue and goal, so that policies during a crisis should be as similar to normal as possible), and proximity (meaning that the lowest devolved authority should retain responsibility unless that is absolutely impossible, to avoid central government taking over.)”

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
6 months ago

Anders Tegnell is the reason I discovered UnHerd. I had just been kicked out of Norway at the start of the pandemic. Somehow the Norwegians had this totally weird misconception that if you had entered the country before Feb 26 th……let’s say 25 th at 11:55 pm…….well then……you were deemed as non contagious and allowed to stay.
I got in on March 9 th. With the mark of their boot on my backside, I managed to take the last train to Stockholm and stayed put in the small house I rent in the summer and stayed there for the following 3 months. No job to go back to. France was in the weirdest of all lockdowns and surfing the net, I discovered Anders Tegnell interview by Freddie and have been a subscriber ever since. I once even wrote to Anders Tegnell to forward a document from the US forecasting when the entire population would be vaccinated. This document was wrong but Anders gracefully replied ( as if he had nothing better to do ). This should bring me millions at an auction :))) The amount of rubbish I was reading in the foreign press about what was going on in Sweden was just bewildering. The best disinformation one could think of.
Following Freddie’s last interview and his very powerful closing statement it is great to have a debrief of Anders book. Everybody in Europe, except the UK is sweeping the issue under the carpet, not even wondering why youngsters and older people have either left school, the job market and how many children died under their parent’s fist in acts of domestic violence
No one is of course speaking about Sweden nowadays, except on UnHerd, but at least, the UK has an inquest going on. Nothing of the sort elsewhere. I find it bewildering to hear people say that we should have been locked down earlier and harder. That actually scares the living light out of me.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
6 months ago
Reply to  Bruno Lucy

Likewise, it was Freddie’s interview with Johan Geisecke, the Swedish epidemiologist and Tegnell’s mentor that brought me to Unherd. https://unherd.com/thepost/coming-up-epidemiologist-prof-johan-giesecke-shares-lessons-from-sweden/
Note the date: 17 April 2020. He foresaw everything that would happen and has since been proven totally correct. So anyone who says ‘we didn’t have enough information at the time’ is, with respect, talking out of their backside.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
6 months ago
Reply to  Rocky Martiano

Yes Giesecke was interviewed first. It was eye opening.

Jonathan Story
Jonathan Story
6 months ago

Excellent article.
The next subject on this should be to investigate who fanned the flames of panic, and why.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
6 months ago
Reply to  Jonathan Story

Panic fuelled by the media and quite frankly millions of dumbos on the bell curve.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
6 months ago

The UK has a considerably higher excess mortality.
The same is true in the US, Australia, other parts of Europe, etc. Is anyone in any of those places looking into why this is, or are they ignoring it in the hopes that the next distraction will take away people’s attention? That may be more rhetorical question than one designed to produce an answer.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
6 months ago

You have a dilemma here:

Imagine that the health technocrats decided that the situation was serious enough that it required a vaccine mandate. Or, yes, a lockdown. What do you choose then? ‘Leave it to the technocrats’ and back them when they introduce drastic measures? Or make it impossible by law to take measures that could deal with a serious pandemic? In that case you had better plan on being lucky.

Last edited 6 months ago by Rasmus Fogh
Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
6 months ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Considering that this thing was war gamed in October of 2019 (it was literally boasted about on the WHO’s website at the time) and seeing how the political power players behaved (they obviously weren’t worried about it at all), I don’t have a dilemma choosing a response.

Arkadian Arkadian
Arkadian Arkadian
6 months ago

I don’t know why I never saw this article yesterday. It is without a doubt obligatory reading for all.
Thank you, Freddie.

Edward De Beukelaer
Edward De Beukelaer
6 months ago

it is not about technocrats against governments it is about being able to accept that reality is always a construct, allowing debate and most of all, never ignore that we as individuals and part of society and the wider world, are system in systems that work on even complex feed back loops, where everything can influence everything , where models always get it wrong, when there are never linear explanations, where everything is none-linear, where there always be illness and death.
Our main consideration should be making sure that life (us, animals farming, the environment) can only stay alive and healthy if we enjoy a dynamic effective balance capacity that keeps us (life) within acceptable boundaries and that therefore providing health is about high quality nutrition (not available form modern farming) good education (…), good local social contacts, rewarding work and an as least as possible polluted environment will provide health.
Preventing illness rarely/never provides health..

Doug Mccaully
Doug Mccaully
6 months ago

Hi again, moderator. I was just reading your mission statement, and you mentioned something about trying to do something harder than falling into either stereotypical camp. You don’t practice what you preach do you, because if anyone posts something that isn’t a stock response you either delay printing it or don’t print it at all. I can abuse people and that’s ok but I can’t respectfully and carefully disagree with your articles. That’s not unherd, that’s unethical. Come on, do better than this.

jules Ritchie
jules Ritchie
6 months ago

Unherd and Trlalsite News were a great support and source of scientific info’ from the beginning of 2020. The Govt offered nothing, no treatments, just isolate, wear a mask in your car. Police chased down and arrested several isolated, single people walking across Bondi Beach or sitting in the park there -alone, so isolate meant different things to different people. What utter madness. Seriously you risk your own health and that of the nation if you take your dog out for a walk? I followed Tegnell from the earliest reports out of Sweden and wished I was living there instead of Oz for the duration.

Doug Mccaully
Doug Mccaully
6 months ago

Hi again, dear moderator. My polite and carefully evidenced post has completely disappeared, some technical hitch maybe?

John Kirk
John Kirk
6 months ago

Not in the same league as some of the erudite commenters here, I lack the zeal to document the sources, what evidences and when, of my political conclusions.

But they’re crystallised and clear nonetheless. Since Brexit a restraint has gone. The ruling classes in their desperation to override the referendum had to be blatant. Now they have no shame and feel no need to keep up appearances, only to go through the motions knowing no-one is deceived.

In Scotland we have had a textbook example but let us stick with Whitehall and Westminster.

This COVID enquiry has no aim but to protect those who took the appalling decisions and suppressed ruthlessly the few authoritative, sane and honourable dissenting voices. Tragically Johnson was no match for them. It seems to me possible, even probable that a perhaps unacknowledged drive was to upset the apple cart in the hope of destroying or disabling both Johnson and Brexit.

They have no interest whatever in revealing or exploring what was done so infinitely better in Sweden.

It remains to be seen just how much damage they did to Britain, long term.

Last edited 6 months ago by John Kirk
Liakoura
Liakoura
6 months ago

Before I recount my own experience I recall reading another Swedish journalist who wrote that self-isolation comes quite naturally to Swedes and doubtless helped in combatting Covid-19 without a lockdown. Furthermore according to Statistics Sweden, the average useful floor space per person in Sweden was 42 square meters at the end of 2022. That’s an incredible advantage if one member of a family needs to go into isolation.
I returned to China from London on 28th January 2020. On landing at Xi’an airport in central China, the plane was held at the gate for 5 hours until two medics in full hazmat suits and helmets entered the plane, took everyone’s temperature, collected a 40 question form and took those with a raised temperature into quarantine. 
When in China I live in a city of over 4 million people, almost 800 miles from Wuhan. I have spent over 9 years living and travelling in the country since 2002.
In 2020, the national lunar Spring Festival holiday was 24 January to 2 February when “half of China travels to visit the other half”. The timing was an unfortunate coincidence in spreading the virus.
The city government where I live locked down on 31 January 2020, when 97 Covid cases had been detected. (It was also the day of the first two cases in the UK). Those infected here were all visitors, some from Wuhan and they were quarantined in their hotels. All roads in and out of the city were closed. All places of work and education, other than hospitals were closed. Only open air food markets were allowed to open. On 4 February the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office advised all Britons to leave China “if they can”. I stayed as by then it was obvious from the lack of seriousness in the UK media, that a catastrophe was on its way.
On 13 February I wrote the following to my MP and the Guardian newspaper whose cartoonists and opinion writers seemed to think what was to become a pandemic was all a big joke.
“1. Two days ago people received a text message from the city authorities telling them to refrain from spitting in the street.
2. Yesterday there was a message from central government saying stay away from wild animals. (sic)
3. Today after visiting the market for food, on arriving back at the gated complex, the security guards required residents to scan tracking software onto their phones so they could tell who was leaving and who was arriving. They had no idea what would happen to the data collected. In the market people were still behaving normally, trying to push in and making no attempt to avoid contact with others.
4. People’s behaviour has changed in some respects, with one example being how they now stand back from the lift doors to see if anyone is coming out, whereas before the virus struck they would frequently barge through those trying to get out. There are three lifts in each of the four blocks so with far fewer people venturing out it’s possible to wait until an empty one arrives. Almost everyone is wearing a mask.
5. I am able to get out every day to walk and every other day to run along the river wearing a mask and gloves and avoiding the few other people I come across, who fortunately also do their best to avoid me. It’s clear that whatever is killing people in Wuhan is coming here.
6. The gym I go to is closed until further notice, there are still no buses and the metro is either closed or not stopping in the city centre. [It was also closed] Today it’s the busiest it’s been for two weeks but both the amount of traffic and pedestrians is greatly reduced.
On 15 February 2020 Chinese media reported an increase of 2,641 cases to 66,492.
The 17th February was the official first day back at work following the end of the extended national holiday, although many places remained closed. On 22 February buses were back on the road and the city metro was working again. Road blocks were removed and those who’d left at the start of Spring Festival were allowed back into the city. Other than wearing masks and where possible, observing ˜distancing” things were more or less back to normal. The 22 day lockdown had worked although internal and external travel continued to be a minor problem, especially for foreigners, until March 2023.
Statista’s most recent report for 27 July 2022 records just 2 Covid deaths in a province of over 48 million people.
https://www.statista.com/statistics/1090007/china-confirmed-and-suspected-wuhan-coronavirus-cases-region/
In December 2022 after an increase in cases, 48 hour negative test results were required on public transport, taxis, internal and external flights. That requirement was rescinded in March 2023.
Perhaps if Boris Johnson had locked down hard on 9 March, when UK cases were 148, (or even better at the end of February 2020, as happened in some UK nursing homes), things would have been markedly different.
The 21 day lockdown I experienced was infinitely preferable to Boris Johnson’s dithering that resulted in three lockdowns lasting almost 16 months.

Doug Mccaully
Doug Mccaully
6 months ago

Hi again moderator, still unable to ‘join the discussion.’ Unherd sums you up.

Phil Gough
Phil Gough
6 months ago

Sweden was able to adopt this laissez-faire approach to governance because its population is only about 10 million, not much more than Greater London, and a population density about a tenth that of the UK (26 per sq km compared with 270 here). Despite a big surge in immigration it is still culturally more homogenous, a factor that aids acceptance of policy implementation. The Swedish approach to the COVID crisis would be difficult to make work here

0 0
0 0
6 months ago

Don’t make yourself look more foolish than necessary, Freddie. Britain and Sweden are SUCH different countries in many ways, there’s no point in thi king about a model that could be transposed from one to another. But if you insist, you’ll have to take into account the costs and delays involved in re-engineering the UK into a shape in which Swedish style pandemic countermeasures could begin to be deployed. If Britons could ever be persuaded to go along with that

Arkadian Arkadian
Arkadian Arkadian
6 months ago
Reply to  0 0

Huh?

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
6 months ago

Ditto

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
6 months ago
Reply to  0 0

You might like to enlighten us by fleshing out the significant ways Sweden and Britain differ that makes the Swedish (originally the British) model approach inapplicable to Britain and what necessary re-engineering you had in mind.

Bruno Lucy
Bruno Lucy
6 months ago
Reply to  0 0

OO……who is the fool here ? If anyone, Freddie being half swede is far more qualified than you to decide how different the UK and Sweden are. By the by…..a real name instead of this ridiculous OO would show a bit more gusto to back up your insulting comment.
The UK has no written constitution and I agree, this would make it…..makes it…..difficult to have civil servants run the show. At the same time, when you see people like Whitty, I don’t think it would have given a different result. Sweden is very wise in leaving crisis in the hand of people who know their trade and act a in a cool measured way. Actually, you are selling your own people short. If anyone can keep cool under duress, it s undoubtedly the Brits, provided they have a good leadership. It happened with Churchill and King George……how could it ever happen with the clownish beehive that number 10 was ?

Last edited 6 months ago by Bruno Lucy