Coronavirus: Sweden determined it has smarter strategy for dealing with COVID-19

Stockholm is a world away from the lockdowns affecting the rest of Europe.

The streets are quieter than normal, but there are still plenty of people about.

In the King’s Gardens they stroll in the spring sunshine, breaking the conventions on social distancing as they huddle together for a selfie beneath the cherry blossom.

By the Royal Palace, a line of children on a school trip pause, admire and walk on.

And yet the hospitals are rapidly filling with victims of the coronavirus and every day the authorities announce another grim rise in the number of deaths, which stood at 358 on Friday afternoon from a little over 6,000 cases.

Sweden is an outlier, determined that it has a smarter strategy for dealing with the virus.

The elderly and vulnerable have been told to protect themselves by staying at home and there’s a ban on crowds of more than 50.

But otherwise, people are encouraged to use common sense and work from home if they want to.

Until two weeks ago it was a strategy that was mirrored in the UK.

Both countries talked about slowing the spread of the virus, allowing the population to build up immunity while flattening the epidemic curve so critical care units weren’t overwhelmed.

Then came the report from scientists at Imperial College London that suggested the need for life-saving care had been underestimated and that 250,000 people would die.

But while Britain went into lockdown, Sweden stood firm.

State epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, the doctor in charge of the strategy, told me a computer simulation is only as good as the data put in and the assumptions made, and the Imperial College scientists had got their numbers wrong.

He said: “Compared to us it is hugely pessimistic. I don’t think any curve in any country has gone as bad as Imperial said it would.

“I just don’t think there is a real connection between lockdowns, closing borders, closing schools and being safer.”

The strategy has huge support from the public. People here trust experts.

“They’re the ones with the qualifications; they know what they’re doing,” one passer-by told me.

Another pointed to the shops and restaurants that may just survive without a lockdown. The economy might revive more quickly once the virus has moved on, he said.

But the strategy is more controversial among scientists.

Some support the government, believing that it’s better to bring in tighter controls only when they’re needed.

Others fear the country is blindly heading for a cliff edge.

Professor Cecilia Soderberg-Naucler, speaking in her laboratory in the Karolinska Institute, fears many will die as a result of what she sees as risks being taken by the establishment.

But she claims the dissenting view is being ignored.

“I am a scientist. I don’t trust authorities, I trust data,” she said.

“I don’t see transparency of data that makes me calm and believe the right strategy has been chosen.

“They might be right. I will open champagne then. This is not about me and who is right or wrong. We should have an open discussion about the scientific data.”

A few miles south of Stockholm’s centre, the military is working alongside civilian contractors to build a field hospital just in case.

Sixty makeshift wards are being erected in a vast exhibition centre. In all, 1,200 patients could be cared for.

Dozens of beds are lined up ready to be moved into place once the partitions are in place and the ventilators installed.

Dr Henrik Jornball, a senior intensive care consultant, has worked for the charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) in desperate situations around the world.

Now he’s practising crisis medicine at home, something he never expected he would have to do.

“No one anticipated what we are seeing in all levels of society,” he sighed.

The truth is nobody knows which strategy – Sweden’s or the UK’s – is best for dealing with COVID-19.

Allowing the virus to spread might give it too much of a head start, so it outpaces the health authorities.

Lockdowns might save lives in the short-term, but risk a second wave of deaths, and years of ill-health from unemployment and deprivation.

It’s a live experiment and the conclusions will have to wait until we are the other side of the pandemic.

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