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'Swedes aren't stupid' - much to learn from foreign Covid success


People enjoy the sun without observing social distancing or wearing face masks in Malmo, Sweden, in June

People enjoy the sun without observing social distancing or wearing face masks in Malmo, Sweden, in June

People enjoy the sun without observing social distancing or wearing face masks in Malmo, Sweden, in June

Sweden was the only major European country to reject lockdown and have most of its bars, restaurants and shops open during the Covid-19 crisis.

Ireland took the least maverick route and yesterday experts said we are at the start of a second wave.

The 14-day incidence rate here was 68.6 per 100,000, while Sweden's was just 36 per 100,000.

A suggestion from a Swedish epidemiologist that Ireland adopt the more 'softly, softly' strategy was among the possible solutions to emerge yesterday from a brainstorming session of experts at the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response.

Others proposed borrowing the best ideas from Finland and Taiwan.

Comeback kid

Sweden has been dubbed the comeback kid of Europe after reversing a high infection and death rate. Dr Johan Giesecke, a former chief epidemiologist in Sweden, said we should allow controlled spread among people aged below 60, but concentrate efforts on the old and frail.

Sweden has frequent testing of staff and residents in nursing homes.

Mask wearing is not mandatory, but there is a very high level of voluntary compliance to anti-Covid measures such as physical distancing. "People are not stupid," Dr Giesecke said.


Sweden's biggest failure in the early months of the pandemic was the high number of deaths among the elderly, which breached 2,700 by early May.

He said there will be a "tolerable spread" among the over-60s.

But there has been a "sea change" in the way people in care homes are now looked after.

Asked by Social Democrats TD Róisín Shortall how more active older people would be protected, he said they need to be careful of how they behaved.

"We have not changed anything for the six months whereas other countries are going in and out of lockdown," he said.

But acting chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn last night ruled out following Sweden's path.

Seven years

Infectious disease consultant Prof Sam McConkey said there needs to be a plan to deal with Covid-19 for up to seven more years. Living with Covid-19 community transmission is like having a tiger in your house - it will come back and bite you, he said. If it is not eliminated "we face multiple regular waves here, of infection, disease and death, and disability" for possibly many years.

An essential element is that once there is an outbreak, there should be testing and detailed contact tracing, pop-up testing and mobile teams.

Incoming travellers

Prof McConkey pointed to successes in Australia and New Zealand that we should adopt by better control of incoming travellers using testing, home visits and quarantines.

A package of measures is needed and the current testing and control measures are not enough.

Physical distancing needs a complete community buy-in and there needs to be improvement in the quality and speed of what we are doing already.

Within the EU there should be a collective effort to get the whole group of countries to aim for elimination.

It would mean areas gradually free of Covid-19 could be opened up.

Scandinavian success

Finland - not Sweden - was held up as the European country to follow by Dr Tomas Ryan of Institute of Neurosciences in Trinity College Dublin.

He said there is no magical ingredient in Finland but they seem to be doing everything really well, from mask-wearing to physical distancing. He said it has a sparser population than Ireland, different customers and possibly more compliance.


People in Ireland are not getting the kind of information they need on the location of outbreaks, whether they are in family homes, weddings or restaurants, said Prof Kirsten Schaffer, a microbiologist at the UCD School of Medicine.

If they did, restrictions would seem more logical and consistent. She pointed to Germany where there is detailed tracing to find the source of the infection. Public health officials only checked what close contacts people had in the previous 48 hours.