Was lockdown all for nothing?
Lockdown-free Sweden had fewer excess deaths than lockdown-mad Germany.
According to the conventional wisdom on the Covid pandemic, countries that imposed the strictest restrictions on their citizens saved the most lives. Governments were either hailed for locking down hard and fast, or they were damned for dithering or not locking down at all. But the latest estimates of excess deaths during the pandemic, produced by the World Health Organisation (WHO), blow this simplistic narrative out of the water.
Take Sweden. Instead of following the rest of Europe into lockdown in spring 2020, it imposed much lighter restrictions. At a time when most Europeans were forbidden from leaving their homes without a reasonable excuse, Swedes were free to go to bars, restaurants, cafés and shops. Schools remained open for all pupils under 16. Large gatherings were banned, but the Swedish government largely relied on trusting the public to follow guidance, rather than imposing social isolation by decree.
The global reaction to Sweden was relentlessly negative. The New York Times repeatedly branded Sweden a ‘pariah state’ whose no-lockdown policy made it ‘the world’s cautionary tale’. The UK’s Guardian, once a fan of Swedish social democracy, denounced Sweden as a ‘model’ nation for right-wingers, branding its Covid policy a ‘deadly folly’.
Sweden, everyone seemed to agree, was conducting a dangerous ‘experiment’ in ‘Swedo-science’, which had ‘well and truly failed’. Swedes had opted to ‘live free and die’, claimed the proponents of lockdown.
But the WHO’s excess-death estimates paint a radically different picture. Even with its no-lockdown policy, Sweden experienced some of the lowest excess-death rates in the EU between January 2020 and January 2022.
Many will also be surprised by the UK’s middling performance. ITV’s political editor, Robert Peston, says he finds it ‘striking’ that the UK ‘no longer seems to have had the worst death rate among richer countries’. The UK never had this status, in truth, but it’s not hard to see why so many believed otherwise.
The conventional narrative goes something like this: the UK suffered the worst Covid death toll in Europe because our ‘libertarian’ prime minister, Boris Johnson, deliberately pursued a strategy of ‘herd immunity’. Johnson had planned to ‘let the virus rip’, we were told. Then he reluctantly agreed to listen to the scientists and lock us down, but only once the pressure had become overwhelming. By this telling, all three of England’s national lockdowns were introduced far too late and lifted far too early. Worse still, in the summer of 2020 government policy actively encouraged indoor mixing and viral spread by subsidising half-price meals at restaurants. The government’s shriller critics on Twitter even accused Johnson of undertaking a #ToryGenocide.
When England finally lifted most of its Covid restrictions on 19 July 2021 – a month later than planned and some seven months after the vaccine rollout began – we were told to expect a bloodbath. Over 1,200 scientists and government advisers from across the world signed an open letter denouncing the lifting of lockdown as a ‘dangerous and unethical experiment’ that threatened the whole world. They feared that the diseased gammon of England, newly free to make physical contact with each other, would incubate and spread a new vaccine-resistant Covid variant.
There is no question that the UK government made many horrific mistakes during the pandemic – not least in sending untested and even Covid-positive patients into care homes during the first wave. But in terms of excess deaths, when ranked against the EU 27, the UK comes a very average 15th.
Meanwhile, some countries fare surprisingly poorly in the WHO estimates. At the start of the pandemic, Germany was held up as a model to follow. Germany seemingly did everything ‘right’. It locked down at a sensible time when the virus first arrived in Europe. And last year it only opened up society when it had a vaccine-passport system in place. In the winter of 2021, it barred unvaccinated people from much of public life.
Other, less convincing reasons for Germany’s Covid ‘success’ were given, too. At the time, Germany was led by Angela Merkel, who had trained as a scientist. This apparently made her more rational and at ease with the data than other world leaders. She was also a woman, and according to an early ‘study’ in 2020, countries with female leaders performed ‘systematically and significantly better’ in the pandemic. Plus, we were told, Germany is just a sensible, rational, ‘grown-up country’ that does things ‘better’ than the rest of Europe. Yet according to the WHO, Germany actually suffered more excess deaths per capita than the UK, Spain and Portugal.
So why do the excess-death figures not fit the narrative we’ve become accustomed to? One reason is that the excess-death numbers can reveal which countries underreported Covid deaths. Germany, for instance, seems to have significantly underreported its true Covid death toll.
Another is that lockdown is simply nowhere near as effective as its proponents have made out. Only a handful of places ever managed to keep Covid rates to near-zero levels using lockdowns and border controls. And as the seemingly never-ending, terrifying Shanghai lockdown shows, even the harshest measures can buckle under more transmissible new variants.
Then there is the fact that the excess-death figures encompass all causes of death – not just deaths from Covid. Excess-death figures cannot tell us how people died. Certainly, a large proportion of these excess deaths are unreported Covid deaths. But the excess-death numbers also capture the indirect, non-Covid deaths caused by Covid policy – by lockdown, by disruption to healthcare, among other causes. Such an enormous rupture to the normal functioning of society was never going to be risk-free. And this is surely one area where the likes of lockdown-free Sweden managed to avoid causing undue harm.
Clearly, the pandemic was far more complex than the media narratives ever allowed for. It was never simply the case that more freedom would mean more death. Nor was ever-harsher lockdown a sustainable strategy. Years of Covid restrictions have taken an enormous toll on society. Could much of it have been for nothing?
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