Stockholm on April 22.

ANDERS WIKLUND/TT NEWS AGENCY/AFP via Getty Images

Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, has defended his country’s unusually lax response to the coronavirus.

Sweden has encouraged social distancing but has not forced businesses, restaurants, or schools to close.

Tegnell said the strategy had achieved its goal of defending the health service and that Stockholm was showing signs of herd immunity.

Its case numbers are comparable to neighboring countries, but the death rate is much higher.

Tegnell said it was “very difficult” to know if a lockdown could have prevented more deaths, particularly in care homes.

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The architect of Sweden’s plan not to lock down for the coronavirus pandemic said he thinks it’s working and that the capital, Stockholm, is already benefiting from herd immunity.

Sweden chose a strategy of implementing a few rules and broadly urging people to socially distance rather than enforcing a strict lockdown. The country says its people can be trusted to follow its guidelines.

The strategy has left schools and restaurants open, in contrast to most other countries with outbreaks.

Sweden’s number of deaths is higher than in other Nordic countries, some of which were among the very earliest countries to lock down and are now taking steps to reopen.

Sweden has a population of about 10 million. It has reported more than 16,700 cases of the coronavirus and over 2,000 deaths. 

A restaurant on March 27 in Stockholm during the coronavirus outbreak.

JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images

In contrast, Denmark, home to almost 6 million, has reported about 8,000 cases and 394 deaths. Norway, which has a population of over 5 million people, has about 7,400 cases and 194 deaths.

Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist, told the BBC that the measures taken had been effective in stopping the country’s health system from being overwhelmed by coronavirus patients.

He said the virus spreading through the population has allowed some immunity to build up among the population.

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“It has worked in some aspects,” Tegnell said. “It has worked because our health system has been able to cope. There has always been at least 20% of the intensive-care beds empty and able to take care of COVID-19 patients.”

Protecting intensive-care-unit capacity is also the goal of countries that decided to lock down. Tegnell appears to be saying that Sweden achieved this without having to act so drastically.

People walk in the main street of the old town in Stockholm, Sweden, on March 25, 2020, as the world fights the coronavirus.

JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images)

And he said about 15 to 20% of people in Stockholm have reached a level of immunity that would “slow down the spread” of a second wave of the virus, something experts worldwide say could be coming.

However, the level of immunity people keep after recovering from the virus is unclear.

The World Health Organization has said not everyone who has been infected has developed the antibodies needed to have immunity and that not everyone who has antibodies is immune.

Tegnell said there was much that is still not known about immunity to the virus and that the 15 to 20% figure would not be enough to create herd immunity, the point at which so many people in an area are immune to a virus that it cannot spread effectively and vulnerable people are protected.

He told CNBC on Tuesday new cases in places like Stockholm had plateaued and that the country was getting closer to herd immunity over time.

Stockholm in April.

Anders Wiklund/TT News Agency / Reuters

He said in Stockholm “we’re already seeing the effect of herd immunity, and in a few weeks’ time we’ll see even more of the effects of that. And in the rest of the country, the situation is stable.”

Sweden has distanced its strategy from the UK’s original herd-immunity plan for dealing with the virus, which was abandoned when modeling showed that it could have resulted in up to 250,000 deaths.

Ann Linde, Sweden’s foreign minister, said President Donald Trump was “factually wrong” when he suggested Sweden was using the UK’s herd-immunity strategy, which would have allowed large gatherings.

Sweden’s strategy has stood out from most of the world

Sweden’s approach means that:

Bars, restaurants, and malls are open.

Schools are still open, and parents are required to keep sending their children there.

The government has urged against nonessential travel.

People are encouraged to work from home if they can, stay home if they feel unwell, keep a distance from others in public, and regularly wash their hands.

People over 70 or in a high-risk group are urged to stay home.

The only restrictions are that gatherings of more than 50 people are banned, bars and restaurants can serve only customers who are seated to reduce crowding, and people cannot visit nursing homes.

Sweden’s parliament gave the government powers to quickly introduce more restrictions if needed, though they have not yet been used.

The government has repeatedly defended its policy, and experts say it has been aided by the population’s high level of government trust and willingness to follow the rules.

But some experts have expressed alarm and asked for more justification for the unusual approach.

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven.

Dan Kitwood/Getty

Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said Sweden’s strategy would help protect the health system but not prevent death. He said the death toll would eventually reach the “thousands.”

When he was asked if bringing in more restrictions would have kept the death toll lower, Tegnell told the BBC, “That’s a very difficult question to answer at this stage.”

“At least 50% of our death toll is within the elderly homes, and we have a hard time understanding how a lockdown would stop the introduction of the disease into the elderly homes,” he said.

This means that Sweden has faced the same issue as many other European countries, where there are few cases and deaths outside of long-term care facilities.

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