Published on:

Sweden’s refusal to impose compulsory shutdowns has now, by contrast, been completely vindicated

We will never know how many people are dying of covid in China. The regime will probably cook the statistical books. The chief executive of an asset management firm in China shared an image last week of a document at a mortuary describing the note you have to sign to get your dead relative released for cremation: “I guarantee that the deceased XXX did not die of #COVID, and I will be fully responsible for any false claim.”

Nor will we ever know how many people died as a result of lockdowns in the nearly three years they were imposed in brutal fashion on the Chinese people before Xi Jinping’s abrupt and humiliating U-turn a few weeks ago. But those in the know think both numbers are in the millions. Relying on draconian lockdowns, while failing to vaccinate the elderly or to buy effective western vaccines, has almost certainly ensured that all age groups will have suffered significant excess mortality from both causes.

Excess mortality is the only true measure of the impact of an epidemic, as the nineteenth century epidemiologist William Farr insisted: “The death rate is a fact; all else is inference.” And lockdowns cause excess mortality outside the virus itself: from untreated cancer and heart disease, from suicide and mental illness. If you look at excess mortality over the past three years, the country with the lowest overall mortality increase is Sweden, the only country that stood against the herd, refused to implement widespread compulsory lockdowns or close schools.

Over the period March 2020 to June 2022, Sweden’s cumulative, all-cause excess mortality was 6.7% according to a little noticed analysis published by the OECD in November. That is the lowest of all the 31 countries studied. In America the equivalent excess mortality was 54.1%, in Britain 24.5% and in Denmark 12.9%. Even zero-covid New Zealand is at 15.5%. Only thinly populated Norway comes close to Sweden’s achievement, with 6.9%.

Those who argued that Sweden was being sensible in relying mostly on voluntary measures were routinely vilified in this country during the pandemic. We know with certainty that the Swedish model has failed, wrote Peter Geoghagen, prematurely, in the Guardian a year ago. Swedes are different, we were told: they live in the forest (no they don’t: the country is more urbanised than the UK); are more socially responsible (cultural stereotypes, anyone?); can be compared only with Danes and Norwegians (yup, done that – see above).


In his fine book The Herd, the Swedish journalist Johan Anderberg has chronicled the development of the Swedish policy and how tough it was for its architect, Anders Tegnell, to stay the course as country after country was stampeded into compulsory and comprehensive lockdowns. “Shutting down society completely won’t work,” said Tegnell on 12 March while watching with admiration Boris Johnson preach the same message. He was devastated when Britain U-turned ten days later, leaving Sweden alone to be the world’s control experiment.

Britain was forced to change course by unrealistic and oversimplified models produced by Imperial College. The same trick was tried in Sweden by Joacim Rocklov and colleagues at Umea University, using a version of the same Imperial models. Unlike Sir Chris Whitty , Tegnell called it a “horror scenario of no use to anyone”. Honourable British exceptions include the epidemiologist Mark Woolhouse, who wrote a book accurately titled The Year the World Went Mad.

We now know – from Matt Hancock’s diaries – that the worst decision, to close all schools, was driven not by any evidence that it would save lives but by a fear of being outflanked by Nicola Sturgeon. Plus the wish of the teachers’ unions that they would rather stay at home on full pay, thank you.

To my shame I was not a lockdown sceptic from the start. But when lockdowns kept happening and kept failing, my doubts grew. Being preached at by the mainstream media that protests against racism in 2020 were not superspreader events but family funerals or protests against lockdowns were – that stuck in my craw.

Then in December 2021 came the final proof that the lockdown fanatics were wrong. The science establishment tried to bounce Boris Johnson into a Christmas lockdown to prevent the omicron wave. Ignoring evidence that omicron was mild – and not just because many people had been vaccinated – they produced models showing a range of possible outcomes: very high to massively high death rates in the months ahead if we did not lock down.


Egged on by Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, Boris called their bluff and refused to cancel Christmas. As Fraser Nelson has chronicled in the Spectator, deaths and hospitalisations never reached a small fraction of even their lowest predicted levels. That emperor had no clothes.


Till 2020 lockdowns were never part of the plan to control pandemics. The reason they happened was twofold. The internet for the first time allowed economies to limp along, at least for the middle class, while locked down. And an inordinately gullible admiration for China had spread within academia and the World Health Organisation.

Richard Horton, the editor of the Lancet, wrote in 2017 that after President Xi had stated that Marxism is to be the foundation for a Healthy China, “medicine has a great deal to learn from Marx.” This was shortly after receiving a Friendship Award from the Chinese government. “China has a socialist, collective system (whatever criticisms people may have),” tweeted Susan Michie, now a senior advisor to the World Health Organisation, “not an individualistic, consumer-oriented, profit-driven society badly damaged by 20 years of failed neoliberal economic policies. #LearntLessons.”

“I am convinced that we have a unique opportunity to entrench a new idea of ​​the Left,” wrote Roberto Speranza, the health minister in Italy, about his decision to implement a national lockdown. “It’s a communist one-party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought…And then Italy did it. And we realised we could,” said Professor Lockdown himself, Neil Ferguson of Imperial College.

Where are these China worshippers now? Has the Lancet carried an editorial disavowing its admiration for one-party tyranny and castigating the covid failures of Beijing? I searched its website in vain. Has the Guardian or the New York Times recognised it was wrong about Sweden? Guess.


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  coronavirus