Swedes’ confidence in their nation’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis has plunged to less than half the population, as the scientist behind the controversial strategy said he made mistakes.
A poll published yesterday showed an 18 percentage point slump in Swedish support for the government’s response to the virus, including its decision to leave much of society open during the spread of the pandemic.
According to the Novus poll published by Swedish state broadcaster SVT, only 45 percent of Swedes now have “fairly high or very high” faith in the strategy, compared with 63 percent in April.
However, the man responsible for Sweden’s controversial COVID-19 strategy says there is no need to change course, despite acknowledging that a different response earlier on might have saved lives.
Swedish state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell triggered international headlines on Wednesday, when he told a local broadcaster he would have adopted a different model to contain the virus at its onset, had he known then what he knows now.
The admission prompted members of the Swedish government to speak out, with Swedish Minister of Health Lena Hallengren demanding clarity.
Tegnell “still can’t give an exact answer on what other measures should have been taken,” Hallengren told local media.
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven has promised an inquiry into the nation’s response to COVID-19.
In an interview in Stockholm on Wednesday, Tegnell said he has no regrets, and is “still confident” that Sweden’s strategy “is working, in broad terms. But, like any strategy, it needs to be adapted all the time.”
Tegnell is the mastermind behind Sweden’s approach to fighting the virus, and the government has deferred to him in its handling of the pandemic.
Gatherings of more than 50 people continue to be banned, but throughout the crisis Swedes have been able to visit restaurants, go shopping, attend gyms and send children under 16 to school.
Tegnell said he thinks it is now clear that closing primary schools was unnecessary, which he considers a key takeaway from the crisis.
However, at 44 deaths per 100,000, Sweden’s mortality rate is among the highest globally and far exceeds the rates in Denmark and Norway, which imposed much tougher lockdowns early on.
Like elsewhere, the virus hit Sweden’s oldest citizens hardest.
“We could have been better at protecting our care facilities. We could probably have tested a bit more than we did in the very beginning,” Tegnell said.
More controversially, he rejects masks as a useful protection against the virus, saying the evidence on masks is “extremely vague.”
With many other EU nations now rolling back their lockdowns after appearing to bring COVID-19 under control, there are signs that Sweden is increasingly being left behind.
The upshot is less freedom of movement for Swedes, as some EU countries, including Cyprus and the Czech Republic, restrict access to people coming from what are deemed high-risk COVID zones.
The Czechs lump travelers from Sweden and the UK into a “red group,” meaning they pose the highest risk.
Crucial to Sweden’s approach to fighting COVID-19 is its universal healthcare system, Tegnell said.
“It makes a huge difference,” he said.
Despite Sweden’s high mortality rate, its hospitals have at no point been overwhelmed, and a field hospital erected at a convention center in the capital has gone unused.
Ultimately, handling a crisis like COVID-19 requires regular adjustment if a country is to succeed in fighting it, Tegnell said.
“There are always improvements that can be made,” he said. “Anybody who has been working with COVID-19 would say the same thing. Because if you don’t improve with what you learn, you will never improve.”
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