The briefing: Why Sweden’s coronavirus approach has failed

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By Darren McCaffrey
Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Lofven gives a news conference on new restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, in Stockholm, Sweden, Nov. 11, 2020.
Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Lofven gives a news conference on new restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, in Stockholm, Sweden, Nov. 11, 2020.   -  Copyright  Henrik Montgomery / TT via AP

COVID-19 continues to devastate much of the continent, with many countries seeing their worst days since the spring – case numbers, hospitalisations and, tragically, deaths are all on the rise.

The UK on Wednesday registered nearly 600 new daily COVID-19 deaths, the highest since mid-May, and taking the total to over 50,000, the highest in Europe. Italy on the same day, reported 623 people died, a daily figure not seen since April. In Spain, over 40,000 people have succumbed to this deadly disease. Hospitals are under pressure and case numbers continue to rise in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, who have been much harder hit this autumn.

Patients from France, Belgium and the Netherlands are extraordinarily still being evacuated to German hospitals, but their doctors are concerned about just how many free beds they will have left.

There are, however, some positive signs, particularly among those countries who have imposed strong national lockdowns. In France, case numbers are rising but it now appears at a much slower rate. The number of patients in intensive care in Ireland is starting to fall. In Belgium an average of 520 patients were admitted to hospital this week, that’s down from a daily average of 600 the week before.

Lockdowns are crude and come with great economic and social cost but they do work, in helping control the spread of the virus and ensuring our health services don’t collapse. They worked back in the spring and, where they have been applied, they appear to be working again.

So let's talk about Sweden. The Nordic nation has been cited, time and again by those who oppose lockdowns (it has never imposed one) as the winning example of being able to control the virus and allowing the economy to remain open. You only need to go onto Facebook or Twitter or even some newspapers to see claims such as: “Why are we continuing to ignore the Swede smell of Covid success?”

But it hasn’t worked. In fact, under almost all metrics, the so-called Swedish model is a disaster. Cases are spiking again, it has the fastest rate of hospitalisations in all of Europe, more than 6,000 people there have died. This compares pretty poorly with its Nordic neighbours, such as Finland, Denmark and Norway. In Finland for example the case rate is 53.4 per 100,000 population – the lowest rate in the EU. In Sweden, it currently stands at 452.8 per 100,000. And with one-in-five tests positive, there are concerns the virus is even more widespread than those figures suggest.

Sweden has the sixth-highest death rate per capita in the European Union. And that is with the advantages of more than 50 per cent of people living alone and a much lower population density - which has been proven to help slow the spread of the virus.

Some of the country’s scientists are now openly critical. After all, with such high case numbers in the spring, Sweden was hoping it wouldn’t be as badly affected the second time around. This has not been the case. So-called herd immunity has failed.

And so to the economy. Again, some mistakenly argued that the battle against coronavirus was about taking sides: protecting the vulnerable or protecting the economy. Yet again though Sweden has shown, by not stopping the spread of the virus, you actually hurt your economy in the long run.

Sweden's GDP fell more dramatically than any of its neighbours in the second quarter. It was down by 8.6 per cent, compared to Finland down 3.2 per cent, and Denmark recording 7.4 per cent drop. The governor of the Riksbank, Stefan Ingves, has admitted that Sweden’s economy has been harder hit by the COVID crisis than is reflected in the latest official forecasts.

The country is now finally starting to take action, the government is set to introduce a nationwide ban on the sale of alcohol after 10 pm in bars, restaurants and nightclubs. And people will again be no longer able to visit elderly relatives in care homes.

How are nightclubs still open? Surely this is all too little, too late?

Sweden’s prime minister, Stefan Löfven, is now under intense pressure. He admitted this week the country is "facing a situation that risks becoming pitch-black''. It is desperate sadly.

Sweden is making the same mistakes it did back in the spring. And we must all also stop making the mistake of thinking that Sweden has got it right – it really hasn’t. The so-called Swedish model has failed.