FACT CHECK: Did Sweden avoid a lockdown to pursue a “herd immunity” strategy?
MISLEADING. Sweden did impose some restrictions, although they were far less strict than neighbouring countries. The Swedish government has denied that herd immunity has ever been their goal.
For the last six months, Sweden has been the subject of media attention for its unusual approach to COVID-19. Unlike the rest of Europe, Sweden avoided a mandatory lockdown and emphasized voluntary physical distancing instead. Sweden’s approach doesn’t appear to have been a success, as the country has seen many more deaths per 100,000 people than Norway and Finland, and only slight economic benefits.
News reports have described Sweden’s strategy as an attempt to achieve herd immunity, where millions of people would be allowed to get infected to build resistance to the virus. Vox highlighted herd immunity in its coverage early in the crisis, while a global health professor wrote in the Guardian that the Swedish government planned to “let the virus run its course and spread through the population.” Since then, the country has been used as a case study as other governments—notably the Trump administration in the US—discussed herd immunity as a potential strategy.
However, life didn’t continue as usual in Sweden. The country didn’t close down businesses and government services to the same extent as the rest of Europe, but it did take action to slow the spread of COVID-19. Some of these measures included banning gatherings of more than fifty people, moving to online learning for students over sixteen (including at universities), banning travel outside the EU, and banning visits to retirement homes. Schools for children under sixteen stayed open, but with added physical distancing measures, extra cleaning, and a number of other measures to limit the spread of the virus.
Swedish citizens also started physical distancing on their own. A study in May reported that 58 percent of Swedes did not meet with friends and 74 percent were staying home in their free time. Rachel Irwin, a global health researcher at Lund University in Sweden, noted that ski courses and movie theatre chains closed voluntarily in March and early April, despite media reports to the contrary. Bankruptcies among hotels and restaurants, meanwhile, increased by 123 percent in March as most customers avoided travel or eating out.
The Swedish government has denied claims from critics that their intention was to achieve herd immunity. The chief epidemiologist for Sweden, Anders Tegnell, has said that the main goal was to slow down the spread of infections, although he told a Swedish newspaper that herd immunity is “not contradictory” with that goal.
Sweden has made some public health choices that are very different from the rest of the world. The country has not embraced the use of masks by the general public, and the Swedish government’s official stance is that asymptomatic spread is unlikely.
Sweden’s strategy led to a much higher death rate than its neighbours in the summer, with more than half of the deaths taking place in long-term care homes. It has reported 57.8 deaths per 100,000 people, while death rates for Norway and Finland—both of which introduced stricter COVID-19-related health regulations—are in the single digits. In September, Sweden had a lower rate of new cases than many other countries in Europe, but the numbers were still higher than in Norway and Finland.
The economic benefits of fewer restrictions, meanwhile, have been mixed. Sweden’s economy shrunk by 8.6 percent between April and June, which was lower than the 11.9 percent drop across the EU. However, spending in Sweden dropped by 25 percent, which is not far off from the 29 percent drop in Denmark, a country that did implement lockdowns.
In summary, it’s only partly true that Sweden had no lockdown. Their government imposed some restrictions—though fewer than its neighbours—and many Swedes voluntarily abided by physical distancing guidelines. Their government has also denied that herd immunity was their goal. Instead, they have focused on reducing the spread of COVID-19 without closing down the entire economy.