The scientist behind the coronavirus lockdown in the UK has admitted that Sweden has achieved roughly the same suppression of the virus without draconian restrictions.
Professor Neil Ferguson, who became known as “professor lockdown” after convincing Boris Johnson to radically curtail everyday freedoms, acknowledged that the Swedish authorities had “got a long way to the same effect” without imposing a full lockdown despite relying on “quite similar science”.
Sweden has adopted a far softer approach to coronavirus than other countries in Europe, introducing voluntary social distancing measures and keeping restaurants, bars and many schools open.
As of the end of May, the country had recorded 4,350 deaths from Covid-19. By contrast, as of Monday there had been at least 39,045 deaths in the UK.
Meanwhile, figures released earlier this month suggested Sweden had so far avoided a heavy blow to its economy by shunning a lockdown. Its GDP contracted by just 0.3 per cent in the first three months of the year, compared to 3.8 per cent across the eurozone.
The UK economy contracted two per cent, the sharpest drop since the height of the financial crisis.
Giving evidence to the House of Lords science and technology committee on Tuesday, Prof Ferguson said he had the “greatest respect” for Swedish scientists, adding: “They came to a different policy conclusion, but based really on quite similar science.
“I don’t agree with it. But scientifically, they’re not that far from scientists in any part of the world.”
Sweden’s rate of virus reproduction – the so-called ‘R’ value – is thought to be at one, meaning that, on average, every case will cause one other infection.
In the UK, it is thought to be between 0.75 and one, meaning the virus outbreak is retreating.
While pointing out that the Sweden’s mortality rate is not declining in a similar way to other European countries, Prof Ferguson said: “Nevertheless, it is interesting that adopting a policy which is short of a full lockdown – they have closed secondary schools and universities and there is a significant amount of social distancing, but it’s not a full lockdown – they have got quite a long way to the same effect. That is something we are looking at very closely.
“Lockdowns are very crude policies, and what we’d like to do is have much more targeted controlled transmission going forward, which doesn’t have the same economic impacts.”
Modelling from Prof Ferguson’s team prompted the UK Government to embrace a full lockdown in March. The predictions warned that the UK could suffer more than 500,000 deaths from coronavirus without the restrictions.
In May, he resigned from his role on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) for “undermining” Government advice after The Telegraph revealed he had met his married lover in breach of the lockdown rules.
In comments that appear to support the Government’s phased lifting of restrictions, he told the committee that the UK now has “a little wriggle room” and that coming out of lockdown would be “a learning experience”.
He also said modellers had “dropped the ball” when it came to predicting the impact of the virus on care homes.