Anders Tegnell: Sweden won the argument on Covid

September 23, 2021
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Of all the celebrities that have been created during the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, Swedish State Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell is perhaps the most surprising. A softly-spoken official within the Swedish Health Agency, he has quietly been going about his work monitoring infectious diseases for years.

But his decision, when Covid hit, to stick to his long-established plan and not recommend mandatory lockdowns, not close the schools, turned him into a lightning rod for competing views on the pandemic. Endless articles have been written about him in media across the world and some Swedes are known to have had tattoos made of him.

UnHerd spoke to him back in July 2020, when he defended the lack of mask mandates and was hopeful that widespread immunity would protect the Swedes from a bad winter wave — a hope that turned out to be overly optimistic. “Judge me in a year,” he said.

Just over a year later, on the eve of Sweden releasing almost all of its remaining Covid restrictions on September 29th, Freddie Sayers spoke to him again. His message? On the big questions — whether Covid was something we had to live with, whether schools should be shut — he believes he has been vindicated.

As ever, many thanks to Anders for taking the time.

On vaccinations:

I think the big change, since we talked last time, is really the vaccinations. There, we really found the tool that’s going to make the difference. And all the other things we have tried are not going to be very important anymore, because reaching and achieving a high vaccination level is the one way we can get out of this pandemic. There does not seem to be any other way, really.
- Anders Tegnell, UnHerd

On winning the main argument:

I think we tried to argue from fairly early on that this is a disease we have to learn to live with… And more and more countries are taking that position, because even with a fantastic vaccine, we can control it, but we cannot eradicate it… We have to accept a certain level of spread in the society. We probably have to accept there’s going to be a few cases in our hospitals, with Covid-19 in the foreseeable future, just like we are accepting a few cases of flu or a few cases of many diseases that we cannot control completely.
- Anders Tegnell, UnHerd

Denmark has declared that Covid is no longer a ‘critical threat’. Will Sweden be doing the same?

It definitely has the potential to be a critical threat again. So I think we have to be extremely vigilant, we have to really follow the development, and not least on the local level, so that we find these outbreaks. We can then contact trace and test people very quickly so we don’t get new, big outbreaks in different parts of the country.
- Anders Tegnell, UnHerd

On the coming winter:

I really do believe that we’re going to have a much easier winter than last winter. Because really, 95, 96% of the people that got badly hurt last winter, they are now vaccinated, and they have good protection. And I think we have every reason to believe that that protection will last through the winter. There might be groups that need another shot; we have plenty of vaccines and resources around that we can give them that so we can keep on protecting them if the need arises. So yes, we’re going to have spread of the disease during the winter; we’re definitely going to see a few cases that are going to need hospital care… So it’s going to be, I think, a time to understand, to learn what Covid-19 is going to be in the long run for society and for our healthcare, so that we can adapt to that in a good way.
- Anders Tegnell, UnHerd

But didn’t the same optimism turn out to be misplaced last time?

The potential to spread was bigger than we expected. I agree. But lots of Nordic countries got a lot worse hit with it. I mean, if you look at excess mortality, for example, Sweden did not fare very badly at all, maybe four or five from the bottom in the European Union. But there was definitely a need of a much higher level of immunity in a population that can only really shift by vaccination to control this disease in any reasonable manner. That’s definitely true — we didn’t see that.
- Anders Tegnell, UnHerd

Why did Sweden act differently to other countries?

That was the tradition, it could be done voluntarily, and people are also listening to that because there is a high level of both respect and trust between the population and the government and the agencies. That’s why we could get quite a lot of impact on doing things on a voluntary basis. I think that’s one aspect.

The other aspect is that the legal system we have in place, forces us to focus on areas where we really can see that there is a high level of threat, so to speak, where there is a high risk of transmission. And that’s why we moved into regulating restaurants very strongly, and left other portions of society more open. Because we could see spread in the restaurants, but we couldn’t see a lot of disease spreading by young people playing football or things like that. We definitely didn’t see a lot of spread in the schools.

- Anders Tegnell, UnHerd

On being proud of keeping schools open:                                                                                          

When you ask Swedish children, they have definitely been affected by the pandemic, but to a lot lesser degree than children would have been if we had closed the schools. And I think a lot of countries also have followed on that, which I think is very good. And if you look at the global level, the United Nations and many others point to children being out of school being one of the main disasters that this pandemic has created.
- Anders Tegnell, UnHerd

A less divided country:

When I read different articles and so on, it has been reasonably peaceful in Sweden. We haven’t had a huge divide like in the United States and other places. So if you should put the mask on or not — the politicians have been fairly much in agreement with that we are doing, even if there is the usual criticism of the government… I mean, some people think we’re doing stupid things. Many of them think this is fantastic, but when I walk in the streets, it’s only thumbs up.
- Anders Tegnell, UnHerd


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