All this talk of Sweden appears to have influenced the decision-making in Downing Street. A recent report in the Sunday Times suggested Johnson chose not to impose a circuit-breaker lockdown in September after a meeting with chancellor Rishi Sunak and three proponents of a herd immunity strategy: Sunetra Gupta and Carl Heneghan of the University of Oxford and Anders Tegnell, the epidemiologist behind Sweden’s laissez-faire approach to the pandemic. (When openDemocracy asked for details of Tegnell’s correspondence with the prime minister’s office, it was told that any release could compromise the formulation of government policy.)
The ubiquity of contrarian voices on Covid played into Boris Johnson’s well-documented tendency for indecision. As anyone looking to influence the prime minister knows, when faced with an array of choices, he will often do nothing. The delay in imposing restrictions in England after September’s meeting with Tegnell and co led to an estimated 1.3m extra Covid infections.
The rhetoric around the Swedish model – and herd immunity – set the stage for Britain to loosen restrictions faster than scientists, or even the public, wanted. We were even offered a financial incentive to do the one thing we have always known spreads the virus: mix indoors. The image of a maskless Rishi Sunak serving meals in a London Wagamama to launch August’s “eat out to help out” initiative has not aged well. (Research suggests that the scheme directly contributed to a rise in infections.)