When future historians come to write the story of Britain’s chaotic pandemic response, one question in particular will surely puzzle them: why, as the UK experienced one of the world’s worst Covid outbreaks, did so many prominent public figures spend so much of 2020 talking about Sweden?
Almost as soon as Boris Johnson announced a national lockdown in late March, British newspaper columnists and professional contrarians demanded that the prime minister adopt “the Swedish model” – and they were still urging the same in September. We now know with certainty what public health experts have long predicted: a light-touch coronavirus approach does not work. Sweden has recorded far higher death rates than its Nordic neighbours, while suffering a similar economic hit. Even the country’s king thinks it has “failed”.
And yet, through the late autumn, as the Covid virus was mutating in England, Sweden was still being cited as an example to follow. In mid-October, the Tory MP Christopher Chope was in parliament extolling the virtues of what he previously called Sweden’s “clear and simple” approach. Just last month, the Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson tweeted that she “admired Sweden’s handling of the pandemic”.
Of course, the full-throated cries of “Sweden” from sections of the conservative press were less about the birthplace of Abba, and more about fostering the idea that Britain could just “open up”, if only politicians were brave enough to do so. Self-styled lockdown sceptics promised – and still promise – that “herd immunity” would save us all, and routinely pointed to Sweden’s adoption of this approach as proof.
Our future historians will doubtless wonder, too, just how, in the imagination of many on the British right, Sweden went from gang violence-riddled dystopia to exemplar in a few months. The answer is quite simple: the same small group of people who talked so fervently about Sweden’s libertarian refusal to lock down – newspaper columnists, backbench MPs, anonymously funded thinktanks – have massively outsized access to British public debate.
All of this is very familiar. In my latest book, I chart how a cadre of backbench Tory MPs, anonymously funded thinktanks and ubiquitous media commentators turned “no-deal Brexit” from an outlandish notion to “nothing to fear”. During the pandemic, the same strategies were employed – often by the same people.
Having held up Norway as a model during the Brexit referendum, Daniel (soon to be lord) Hannan said we could all be like Sweden. Christopher Snowdon of the Institute of Economic Affairs declared that Sweden had demonstrated “a more sensible way to balance risk, liberty and the economy”. After so successfully mobilising the European Research Group of Tory MPs to push for a hard Brexit, Steve Baker even started up a tribute act: the Covid Recovery Group, or CRG for short.
All this talk of Sweden appears to have influenced the decision-making in Downing Street. A recent report in the Sunday Times suggested Johnson chose not to impose a circuit-breaker lockdown in September after a meeting with chancellor Rishi Sunak and three proponents of a herd immunity strategy: Sunetra Gupta and Carl Heneghan of the University of Oxford and Anders Tegnell, the epidemiologist behind Sweden’s laissez-faire approach to the pandemic. (When openDemocracy asked for details of Tegnell’s correspondence with the prime minister’s office, it was told that any release could compromise the formulation of government policy.)
The ubiquity of contrarian voices on Covid played into Boris Johnson’s well-documented tendency for indecision. As anyone looking to influence the prime minister knows, when faced with an array of choices, he will often do nothing. The delay in imposing restrictions in England after September’s meeting with Tegnell and co led to an estimated 1.3m extra Covid infections.
The rhetoric around the Swedish model – and herd immunity – set the stage for Britain to loosen restrictions faster than scientists, or even the public, wanted. We were even offered a financial incentive to do the one thing we have always known spreads the virus: mix indoors. The image of a maskless Rishi Sunak serving meals in a London Wagamama to launch August’s “eat out to help out” initiative has not aged well. (Research suggests that the scheme directly contributed to a rise in infections.)
Sunak is part of the growing libertarian trend among Conservative MPs, many of whom have been vociferous in their opposition to renewed lockdown measures. Lockdown sceptics have had financial support, too: the much-discussed Great Barrington declaration, which advocated herd immunity, was coordinated by a US thinktank that has received funding from the billionaire Koch brothers, who pumped huge sums into the Republican party and its fringes.
All of this has shaped Britain’s haphazard pandemic response. Faced with pressure from lockdown sceptics in the media and inside his own party, Johnson dithered, time and again. When the prime minister’s chief scientists were urging greater restrictions in December, the prime minister’s transport secretary Grant Shapps was announcing a £3m scheme to bus people to visit their family at Christmas. Less than a week later, most of England went into tier 4. Meanwhile, lockdown sceptics are still cherrypicking data to suggest that Covid is overhyped, even as hospital cases surge to new highs.
The British government is now facing 2021 with a Covid infection rate that the health secretary admits is out of control, but with many of its own MPs firmly opposed to further restrictions. Maybe we shouldn’t wait for the historians’ verdict before we ask ourselves whether it is a good idea to allow a handful of pundits, thinktanks and backbenchers to exert such a pull on British public life?
Peter Geoghegan is investigations editor of openDemocracy. His book, Democracy for Sale, is published in an updated paperback on 7 January