Tegnell in October this year (JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP via Getty Images)


December 20, 2023   4 mins

After thousands of hours of political inquisition and motivated reasoning, the UK Covid Inquiry has finally allowed mention of the single most important control group in the global lockdown experiment: Sweden. A written submission by former State Epidemiologist of Sweden Anders Tegnell, published in a dump of more than 700 documents on the final day before the Christmas recess, contains a barrage of uncomfortable facts delivered in typical Nordic deadpan.

Tegnell, both revered and reviled as the architect of Sweden’s more laissez-faire Covid response, begins by restating the fundamentals in answer to a series of written questions. What was Sweden’s approach to lockdowns? “No formal lockdown used.” What about so-called “circuit-breaker” mini lockdowns? “None used.” And what was the overall result in terms of excess deaths, or the number of people who died as a result of the Covid period? “Excess mortality differs slightly depending on the method but Sweden is at the same level as the Nordic countries and sometimes lower. The UK has a considerably higher excess mortality.” Ouch.

Frankly, Dr Tegnell needn’t have said anything else. The combination of these two datapoints alone — that the only country in Europe to avoid lockdowns entirely emerged with the lowest excess death count of the whole continent — should be enough for any fair-minded evaluation of the evidence to conclude that lockdowns were a mistake. The minimum evidential threshold for a policy experiment so radical and so destructive to society must surely be that it definitely saved lives; this threshold was not met, and in fact the Swedish example suggests that the policy may well have cost lives in the longer term.

The reason the inquiry invited Dr Tegnell to answer questions was to convict Boris Johnson of recklessness in not imposing a second lockdown sooner in September 2020. Tegnell attended a now-famous Zoom meeting with Johnson and Sunak alongside Professors Sunetra Gupta, Carl Heneghan and John Edmunds in that month, to hear from alternative voices. The theory is that they delayed the autumn lockdown in part as a result of this meeting.

In his evidence to the inquiry, Tegnell meticulously avoids the traps being set for him, insisting that on the Zoom call he shared information about the Swedish experience but avoided giving specific advice about whether the UK should lock down or not. Indeed, in a memo written to the UK government at the time and shared with the inquiry this week, he concludes that the UK should take action of some kind, but in doing so should be guided by evidence.

“The short answer to the question [of whether the UK government should intervene] is in my opinion yes,” he wrote in September 2020. “The myth that Sweden did nothing during the pandemic is false. We have initiated a wide range of activities not least in the area of communication.” There was advice to work from home where possible, for example, and to self-isolate while you are symptomatic.

But throughout, Tegnell relentlessly places emphasis on the need for evidence: if he was not convinced that a particular measure provably worked (for example mandating face masks) he refused to introduce it. As a result, except a few notices on trains for some months in 2021, Sweden avoided face-masks entirely.

Perhaps the most interesting section of Dr Tegnell’s evidence is his analysis of the impact of the Swedish constitution. Unlike in most parliamentary democracies including the UK, Swedish politicians are forbidden from interfering in the work of the government agencies, including the health agency:

“The Government sets out the objectives of the agencies’ activities and how much money they have available to them… but it has no powers to interfere with how an agency applies the law or decides in a specific case… In many other countries, a minister has the power to intervene directly in an agency’s day-to-day operations. This possibility does not exist in Sweden, as ‘ministerial rule’ is prohibited.”

In other words, the real reason Sweden resisted the global rush to lockdowns in 2020 was that its technocrats (such as Tegnell) were all-powerful. Where politicians are instantly vulnerable to media narratives, public opinion and political pressure, the Swedish agencies were constitutionally protected from these influences. They had a plan, and they stuck to it. In other contexts, I can attest, the Swedish insistence on sticking to the rules can be quite maddening; but in 2020 it saved the day. It’s a paradox that will not sit well with many anti-lockdown campaigners who see the evil technocracy as the problem, and want to sweep away the “blob”.

Further, Sweden’s constitution has a specific approach to crisis management, designed precisely to avoid power-grabs by governments during a crisis. It enshrines three principles: responsibility (in which the normal regional authorities retain their jurisdiction during a crisis), similarity (business-as-usual as an explicit virtue and goal, so that policies during a crisis should be as similar to normal as possible), and proximity (meaning that the lowest devolved authority should retain responsibility unless that is absolutely impossible, to avoid central government taking over.) It is a rubric specifically designed to avoid power-grabs by the centre during so-called emergencies. Tegnell continues:

“Sweden’s constitutional order does not allow for the declaration of a state of emergency. Fundamental civil rights and freedoms can only be suspended in the case of war. Public health emergencies are therefore regulated by ordinary law… It is legally impossible to enforce a general quarantine or “lockdown” measures.”

So, even if the Swedish politicians had buckled to international pressure and called for lockdowns, they would have been constitutionally unable to impose them.

If the Covid Inquiry were actually interested in preparing for future crises, this lesson from Anders Tegnell is a profound one. It points in the opposite direction to the “muscular” Asian-style central government so revered by Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove. It suggests that if you want to protect people during a so-called crisis, keep the politicians out of it, slow the spread of panic and enshrine in law the virtue of “keep calm and carry on”. It used to be considered a British virtue; a Covid inquiry that was more connected to reality might have rediscovered it.


is the Editor-in-Chief & CEO of UnHerd. He was previously Editor-in-Chief of YouGov, and founder of PoliticsHome.

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