Swedish strategy ‘had same result as ours’
Professor admits radical Scandinavian policy worked as well as British policy of shutting down
The scientist behind lockdown in the UK has admitted Sweden achieved roughly the same suppression of coronavirus without draconian restrictions. Neil Ferguson said that, despite relying on “quite similar science”, the Swedish authorities had achieved virtually the same results without a full lockdown. Sweden adopted a softer approach than elsewhere in Europe, introducing voluntary social distancing but keeping restaurants, bars and schools open.
THE scientist behind lockdown in the UK has admitted Sweden achieved roughly the same suppression of coronavirus without draconian restrictions.
Neil Ferguson, who became known as “Professor Lockdown” after convincing Boris Johnson to radically curtail everyday freedoms, acknowledged that, despite relying on “quite similar science”, the Swedish authorities had achieved virtually the same results without a full lockdown.
Sweden adopted a softer approach than elsewhere in Europe, introducing voluntary social distancing but keeping restaurants, bars and schools open and recording 4,350 deaths by the end of May, compared with 39,045 in England.
Data released in May also suggested Sweden had so far avoided a heavy blow to its economy, its GDP contracting just 0.3 per cent in the first three months of the year, compared with 3.8 per cent across the eurozone. Britain’s economy contracted 2 per cent.
Giving evidence to the House of Lords science and technology committee yesterday, Prof Ferguson said he had the “greatest respect” for Swedish scientists. “They came to a different policy conclusion based really on quite similar science,” he said. “I don’t agree with it but scientifically they’re not far from scientists in any part of the world.”
Sweden’s R value was thought to be at 1, meaning on average every case would cause one other infection. In the UK, it was thought to be between .75 and 1, meaning the virus outbreak should be retreating.
Prof Ferguson resigned from the main Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies committee last month after The Daily Telegraph revealed he broke social distancing rules to meet his married lover.
Virus arrived earlier than expected
Britain’s high death toll was due in part to the fact Covid-19 entered the UK earlier than predicted, and from unexpected sources, Prof Ferguson said, with analysis revealing most transmissions here originated in Spain and Italy.
“We had been worrying about infection from China, other Asian countries and maybe the US,” he said, “but it’s clear there were hundreds if not thousands of infected individuals coming into the country from [Spain and Italy]. It explains some of the acceleration in policy then, but also explains to some extent why mortality figures ended up being higher than we hoped.”
Lockdowns are crude
Lockdown was a blunt instrument and should be replaced when possible with more precise measures that cause less economic damage, he said.
His comments could be taken as support for reimposing controls in the event of a resurgence, a prospect raised by ministers. He said: “Lockdowns are very crude policies and what we’d like to do is have much more targeted controlled transmission.”
Despite this, he said the UK lockdown had been 10 per cent more effective than predicted in reducing contacts. He also revealed the issue of lockdown fatigue was not something his team had taken into account.
“Some had that view on Sage but it wasn’t one I shared or other modellers looked at,” he said. “I think the difference was, we assumed there would be a 75 per cent drop in contacts outside the home. It turned out to be more like 85, so we’re not talking about differences which make a qualitative change.”
Transmission flat until September
The transmission rate of the virus should stay “relatively flat” until September, but after that it is “unclear”.
Appearing to support the gradual easing of restrictions, Prof Ferguson said: “I suspect levels of transmission and numbers of cases will remain relatively flat between now and September, short of very big policy changes or behaviour changes in the community.”
He added he could be less certain about what may happen in September, when respiratory viruses tended to transmit slightly better.
In the same session he said that full lockdown had reduced transmission by roughly 80 per cent, but that to maintain control that could not slip below 65 per cent.
“This is a highly transmissible pathogen. We have a little bit of wiggle room, so it will be a learning experience as to how we allow society to resume while maintaining control of transmission.”
Care home plight ‘shocking’
Prof Ferguson said he was “shocked” at the failure to protect care home residents. He said: “If we had done a better job of reducing transmission in closed institutions like hospitals and care homes, we would have a little more wiggle room. The infections spilt back into the community, more commonly from the people who work in those institutions.”
Prof Matt Keeling, from the University of Warwick, said the modelling community had “dropped the ball” when it came to understanding the impact on care homes and hospitals.
The Government’s new track-and-trace programme was “not a panacea” that on its own would solve the crisis, Prof Ferguson said, predicting that it would “reduce the R value by 0.25 at the most” – but that depended on how quickly contacts were identified.