Sweden's coronavirus expert warns wearing masks is 'very dangerous'

Sweden’s coronavirus expert warns that wearing masks is ‘very dangerous’ because it gives people the idea it is safe to be in crowded rooms or public transport

  • Anders Tegnell has voiced scepticism that masks will control Covid outbreaks
  • Sweden’s infectious diseases expert noted countries with widespread mask compliance were still experiencing rising cases of coronavirus 
  • Dr Tegnell previously said evidence of the benefit of wearing masks was ‘weak’  

Sweden’s top coronavirus expert is refusing to force people to wear face masks in public, arguing that donning them is ‘very dangerous’ because it gives the impression it is safe to be in crowded rooms or on public transport.

Anders Tegnell, chief epidemiologist at Sweden’s Public Health Agency, has expressed scepticism that face masks will control Covid-19 outbreaks.

The infectious diseases expert, who refused to follow European governments in locking down in March, also noted that countries with widespread mask compliance, such as Belgium and Spain, were still experiencing rising cases of Covid. 

In an interview with the Financial Times, Dr Tegnell said: ‘It is very dangerous to believe face masks would change the game when it comes to Covid-19.

‘Face masks can be a complement to other things when other things are safely in place. But to start with having face masks and then think you can crowd your buses or your shopping malls – that’s definitely a mistake.’  

Dr Tegnell previously brushed off the prospect of compelling Swedes to wear face masks, and called evidence of their effectiveness ‘astonishingly weak’. 

Sweden’s coronavirus expert Anders Tegnell has expressed scepticism that face masks will control Covid-19 outbreaks. The infectious diseases expert, who refused to follow European governments in locking down in March, also noted that countries with widespread mask compliance, such as Belgium and Spain, were still experiencing rising cases of Covid 

Toursits wear protective face masks due to Covid as they visit the old town in Stockholm

In an interview with the Financial Times , Dr Tegnell said: ‘It is very dangerous to believe face masks would change the game when it comes to Covid-19’ (pictured: A couple wearing protective face masks is seen in the center of Kyiv in June 2020)

Sweden, which has stood out among European countries for its low-key approach to fighting the coronavirus pandemic, recorded its highest tally of deaths in the first half of 2020 for 150 years, the Statistics Office said on Wednesday.

Covid-19 claimed about 4,500 lives in the period to the end of June – a number which has now risen to 5,800 – a much higher percentage of the population than in other Nordic nations, though lower than in some others including Britain and Spain.

Sweden’s Covid-19 expert comes under fire for appearing to ask whether a higher death rate in old people was a fair price to pay for herd immunity 

Sweden’s Covid-19 expert Anders Tegnell has come under fire for appearing to ask whether a higher death rate in elderly people was a fair price to pay for herd immunity. 

Email exchanges obtained by journalists in Sweden under freedom of information laws appear to show the country’s coronavirus strategist discussing the option of keeping schools open to encourage herd immunity in mid-March.

One conversation was with Tegnell’s Finnish counterpart, Mika Salminen, in what Swedish journalists say appears to be a brainstorming of methods to tackle the pandemic. 

The newly-released emails which date back five months have caused a stir in Sweden and have fuelled criticism of the country’s no-lockdown approach to the pandemic.  

In total, 51,405 Swedes died in the January to June period, a higher number than any year since 1869 when 55,431 died, partly as a result of a famine. The population of Sweden was around 4.1 million then, compared to 10.3 million now.

Covid-19 meant that deaths were 10 percent higher than the average for the period over the last five years, the Statistics Office said. In April the number of deaths was almost 40% higher than average due to a surge in Covid-related fatalities.

Sweden has taken a different approach to most European countries in dealing with the pandemic, relying to a greater extent on voluntary measures focused on social distancing and opting against a strict lockdown.

Most schools have remained open and many businesses have been continued to operate to some extent, meaning the economy has fared better than many others. 

However, the death toll has been higher than in its Nordic neighbours, which opted for tougher lockdown measures. Norway, with around half the population, has had only around 260 Covid deaths in total.

Finland’s economy outperformed its larger neighbour in the second quarter, despite a tougher lockdown. Finland’s gross domestic product shrank around 5 per cent against an 8.6 per cent contraction in Sweden from the last three-month period.

Last month Dr Tegnell’s public health agency shrugged off claims that people should wear face masks in crowded public spaces during the pandemic.

Speaking to German newspaper Bild, the coronavirus expert described ‘the belief that masks can solve our problem’ as ‘very dangerous’. 

‘The findings that have been produced through face masks are astonishingly weak, even though so many people around the world wear them,’ he said.

‘I’m surprised that we don’t have more or better studies showing what effect masks actually have. Countries such as Spain and Belgium have made their populations wear masks but their infection numbers have still risen. 

Sweden, which has stood out among European countries for its low-key approach to fighting the coronavirus pandemic, recorded its highest tally of deaths in the first half of 2020 for 150 years, the Statistics Office said on Wednesday

‘The belief that masks can solve our problem is in any case very dangerous.’

Dr Tegnell also claimed that Sweden resisted a UK-style lockdown because ‘it is a Swedish tradition that we give a lot of responsibility to individuals’.  

He previously told the Mail on Sunday he had been ‘following’ the UK in resisting full lockdown and was ‘disappointed’ when we abruptly altered our strategy.

‘I am very sceptical of lockdowns altogether but if you ever do them, you should do them at an early stage,’ he added, referring to Britain’s delay in acting. 

‘At certain times I suppose they can be useful, if you are unprepared and need more intensive care facilities… but you are really just pushing the problem ahead of you.’

Sweden’s Covid-19 expert comes under fire for appearing to ask whether a higher death rate in old people was a fair price to pay for herd immunity

IAN BIRRELL: Why Sweden, pilloried by the whole world for refusing to lock down – with schools staying open and no face mask laws – may be having the last laugh as experts say Stockholm is close to achieving herd immunity

By Ian Birrell for the Mail on Sunday 

As she sat dangling her legs over the water while waiting for the ferry back to Stockholm, Carolinne Liden looked a picture of contentment after a day out on a sunny Swedish island. 

But the pandemic has been tough for this young mother. She works in film production, so all her contracts were cancelled and she had to take a job in an equine shop to make ends meet.

Her partner Tobias Moe, a freelance photographer, also saw his income fall. 

Yet when I asked this affable couple about Anders Tegnell, the state epidemiologist steering their country’s strategy for tackling this crisis, their reply was instant. ‘He’s a hero,’ said Carolinne, 35.

Supportive views: Film production worker Carolinne Liden and her photographer partner Tobias Moe

‘It is such a huge responsibility to take these decisions that affect the whole country and I like the way he sticks to his guns even if he gets a lot of criticism.’

Such adulation for a scientist – echoed in less adulatory terms by other day-trippers I met on the islands of Fjaderholmarna last week – might seem strange to outsiders. Sweden has one of the highest global death rates from coronavirus. 

Tegnell’s refusal to impose lockdown on his fellow citizens is held up by critics around the world as a warning against adopting a laissez-faire attitude to this deadly disease.

Yet as infections spike again in places that locked down their populations, where schools struggle to reopen and the economic carnage from this crisis grows clearer, is it possible this Scandinavian nation might have made the right long-term call? 

After all, as Swedish public health experts kept telling me last week, the struggle against this horrible pandemic ‘is a marathon not a sprint’.

Digital investor Hans Isoz with his wife Camilla and their daughter Henrietta

The World Health Organisation warns the impact may be felt for decades. ‘Many countries that believed they were past the worst are grappling with new outbreaks,’ said director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. ‘Some that were less affected in the earliest weeks are now seeing escalating numbers of cases and deaths.’

Yet Sweden is seeing a sustained drop in cases, with some experts even suggesting it may be close to herd immunity in the capital Stockholm. 

The number of deaths, new cases and patients in intensive care has fallen dramatically.

On one key measure – percentage change in new confirmed cases over the past fortnight relative to the previous 14 days – Sweden is down more than a third. 

This contrasts with sharp rises in neighbouring Denmark, Finland and Norway, along with countries such as Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK.

Meanwhile, the latest data suggests Sweden is suffering less severe economic trauma than most major European nations, while it has, almost uniquely among Western countries, kept schools open. 

So what is the truth about the bold but controversial Swedish stance that sets it apart from most other developed nations?

Tegnell openly told me that, like all global experts, he was ‘shooting in the dark’ when this new disease erupted, and he admitted that he expected to see spikes, especially when people return indoors as it gets colder in the autumn.

But he said they sought from the start a sustainable approach that could retain public support – and that they saw their remit as going beyond simply fighting the virus to include keeping the country functioning as much as possible.

Sunny outlook: IBM executive Benedikt Furrer, far left, and psychologist Ulrika Thulin, centre, enjoying a coffee with a friend on Fjaderholmarna near Stockholm 

‘We have knowledge of the negative effects of closing schools so that was definitely in our thinking,’ he said. 

‘Also to keep society open, keep unemployment down, make it possible for people to meet each other. We know that social contacts are a little bit dangerous in these times but they are very important for your wider health.

‘It is necessary to keep a balance between stopping the epidemic and keeping people healthy.’

The Swedish approach relies on trust rather than enforcement, going to the heart of how Swedes see their society.

‘To live in a democracy you need trust,’ said Morgan Olofsson, spokesman for Sweden’s Civil Contingency Agency, which is responsible for public safety, emergency management and civil defence.

‘The government must trust the people and the people must trust their government.’

Tegnell, who runs the response in keeping with the country’s political tradition of consensus and reliance on independent experts, urged people to socially distance, work from home where possible, and isolate if at risk or showing symptoms. 

Public gatherings of more than 50 people were prohibited – but barbers, cafes, gyms, restaurants, shops and schools for children under 16 were allowed to stay open. The compulsory imposition of face masks has been ruled out so far.

There was, however, catastrophe in care homes, as there was in several other nations such as Britain, Canada and Spain, which reflects years of neglect for a fragmented sector staffed by underpaid workers often flitting between different places to make ends meet.

An official inquiry found almost half of Sweden’s Covid-19 deaths by end of June took place in elderly care homes concentrated in 40 of the country’s 290 municipalities.

Tegnell accepted the state should have done more to protect them. Horrifically, it seems many old people were simply given morphine and left to die rather than taken to hospital for fear of overloading intensive care wards. 

‘Most people still do not realise that dying from Covid is a terrible death, so it is awful that many people died in this way who could have lived longer and had more peaceful deaths,’ said Paul Franks, a professor in epidemiology at Lund University.

Yet despite this failure, Prof Franks sees lockdown as ‘a very blunt instrument’. So when I asked this thoughtful British expert if his host nation’s strategy was a success, he paused before replying carefully: ‘Sweden accidentally did not get a lot wrong.’

People enjoy boat rides, canoe paddling and stand up paddle in the nearly 30 degrees Celsius warm summer weather at the Palsund canal in Stockholm on Saturday

This sounds a strange response when the country’s fatality rate is so many times higher than all three of its Scandinavian neighbours (although lower than Britain). 

But Prof Franks pointed out that, according to the Imperial College model that sparked Britain’s sudden lockdown, Sweden should have seen between 42,000 and 85,000 deaths. 

So far, this country of 10.1 million people has seen 5,763 fatalities, despite the care home carnage and initial high infection rates in some migrant communities.

Anna Mia Ekstrom, a clinical doctor and professor of global infectious disease epidemiology at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institutet, said the key was to look at trends showing Sweden’s steady decline in cases and deaths since their peak in mid-April. 

She argued it may not be possible nor even desirable to restrict infection rates to zero for a sustainable period of time, especially when most people are unaffected by the virus and as long as those most at risk such as the elderly are protected.

Prof Ekstrom believes Stockholm, currently down to ‘two or three’ patients in intensive care in its infectious disease hospitals, may be coming close to herd immunity as shown by the sustained fall in critically ill patients and fatalities – and that this is a consequence of avoiding lockdown. 

The capital, home to a million people, was the worst-hit region because of families bringing back infections from half-term winter breaks in Italy and Spain. 

A fifth of residents have antibodies, while a larger proportion may be protected through the response of T-cells, which ‘remember’ infections and kill pathogens that reappear. 

‘It is not yet herd immunity but immunity levels have so far been growing steadily,’ said Prof Ekstrom. (Although even Tegnell admitted to me that he was left confused by the ‘mystery of immunity’ with this disease).

Prof Ekstrom added that evidence from elsewhere indicated that lockdowns were unsustainable. ‘You go crazy after a while,’ she said. 

When asked about about Anders Tegnell, the state epidemiologist steering their country’s strategy for tackling this crisis, film production worker Carolinne Liden called him a ‘hero’

‘We have a more acceptable approach that can last a long time since it lets people move around, so their mental and physical health suffer less – though they must stick to social distancing. 

‘We are in a better situation compared to other countries now, though smaller cluster outbreaks will emerge. 

‘Lockdown is a blunt, unsustainable and harmful instrument over any prolonged period, especially damaging for younger populations, wider healthcare and the economy, with poorer people hit hardest. Closing down primary schools especially is a huge mistake.’

These points about the wider impacts of the pandemic cropped up repeatedly in my conversations. The views of Ulrika Thulin, a psychologist enjoying a coffee with three friends on Fjaderholmarna, felt particularly pertinent. 

She said even their relaxed stance was sparking problems for some people since many citizens were staying at home, abandoning social events and avoiding older people.

How Covid-19 cases have changed in Spain, Belgium, Finland, Greece, France, Ireland, Germany, Italy, the UK, Luxembourg and Europe overall. The biweekly growth rate on any given date measures the percentage change in the number of new confirmed cases over the last 14 days relative to the number in the previous 14 days

‘Mentally it is a challenge – isolation is not good for you,’ she said.

‘We are already seeing issues with relationships and we will have more depression, more alcohol problems and more mental problems. But it would have been much worse with lockdown.’

Sitting beside her was Benedikt Furrer, an IBM executive, who said: ‘I work with lots of British colleagues. They said they suffered from being locked down and not being able to roam freely like us.’

Perhaps the most popular part of Sweden’s strategy has been the decision to keep most schools open. One joint study with public health authorities in Finland, where almost all pupils were kept out of school for two months, found their differing approaches made no measurable difference to contagion rates. 

‘This has strong benefits for parents of small children while avoiding disruption to children’s learning and preventing long-term scarring for the labour market,’ said Karolina Ekholm, former deputy governor of Sweden’s central bank.

Biweekly change in confirmed COVID-19 cases in Europe

We spoke after the release of data showing that Sweden’s economy, which grew marginally in the first quarter of this year, shrunk more than at any point since the Second World War during the pandemic’s three-month peak. 

Yet it outperformed most key rivals. It fell 8.6 per cent over the second quarter compared with a 12 per cent fall across the Eurozone. Analysts fear the UK economy may shrink 20 per cent over this period.

‘It’s grim by any normal standards but compared with other parts of Europe they have done well,’ said David Oxley, senior Europe analyst at Capital Economics. Sweden’s big exporters are seeing profits decline smaller than anticipated while there are fewer bankruptcies than feared.

‘If a business can stay open, it’s clearly better than closing,’ said Esbjorn Lundevall, an analyst at Scandinavian bank SEB.

He added that keeping schools open provided a significant economic boost.

The biweekly map shows how most countries in Europe have reported between a 25 and 200 per cent increase in cases in the past two weeks

‘I worked from home for nine weeks and my children went to school every day, which meant I had higher productivity than if they had remained at home.’

Yet the pandemic is still devastating many small firms as people work from home, stop socialising, lose jobs and rein in spending. Public health modelling indicates Swedes have cut social interactions by more than two-thirds.

I picked five retailers at random while walking through Stockholm’s bohemian Sodermalm district. The outlets sold diverse products: bread, clothes, ice cream and shoes. Trade at all five had crashed, with four owners contemplating closure. 

‘It’s terrible,’ replied Renee Andersson when I asked about sales in her shoe shop. ‘I stand here for hours but no one buys anything.

‘It’s like a mass psychosis – everyone is afraid.’

Maria Karlberg told me she has decided to shut her clothing shop after eight years and move to a smaller site. ‘It’s very sad,’ she admitted. ‘But I’m still glad there has been no lockdown – one or two thousand krona [£87-£174] a day is better than nothing.’

There are, of course, vociferous Swedish critics of this strategy designed to slow rather than stop the spread of coronavirus, including 25 academics who wrote to an American newspaper saying it led to ‘death, grief and suffering’.

There has been fury from people whose relatives died in the care home fiasco. And I came across eight noisy protesters outside a Tegnell press conference demanding the imposition of face masks. 

Nicholas Aylott, a political scientist at Sodertorn University, said the approach adopted under a centre-Left coalition government confused the opposition. ‘The Right has been discomforted by the Left’s discovery of libertarianism,’ he said.

One recent survey found eight in ten Swedes still claim to be following official guidelines, while the proportion of people fearing they risk being felled by the virus plunged from 50 per cent in March to just 29 per cent in July.

Certainly every citizen I met on the streets seemed to support the strategy. ‘If we look back in a couple of years I think we will be seen to have handled the situation well,’ said Hans Isoz, an investor in digital companies.

Only time will tell if he is right – and whether more countries should have followed the Swedish path through this cruel pandemic.

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