A libertarian fantasy: what Europe can learn from Sweden’s Covid-19 response

Conservative backbenchers in the UK have recently taken to transforming Sweden into a libertarian fantasy – a place where there is no need to curtail civil liberties or wreck the economy to control Covid-19.

Image credit: Georgy Rudakov, via Unsplash.

In September, Head of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers Sir Graham Brady, ruined a perfectly good argument – that Parliament must have the power to scrutinise Boris Johnson’s emergency decrees – by announcing that there is no emergency. Taking the example of a country that merely banned gatherings of more than 50 people and restricted care home visits, Brady commented: “Sweden today is a better place than the United Kingdom”. In a similar display of misguided respect, Johnson consulted Dr Anders Tegnell , Swedish public health “mastermind”, before announcing the UK’s most recent coronavirus restrictions.

Why Sweden’s response is not ideal

Contrary to what the British Government believes, Sweden has not offered an escape from a public health catastrophe. It has had a more protracted outbreak with far more deaths per capita than its neighbours, Norway and Finland. But can Sweden offer the rest of Europe an alternative to the social disintegration we are in danger of suffering?

Sweden’s 10 million citizens were asked to respect physical distancing guidelines and work from home if possible, which most did. Swedish authorities have argued that public health should be viewed in the broadest sense. Strict mandatory lockdowns could increase unemployment and mental health problems, which themselves cost lives.

Dorit Nitzan, the World Health Organisation’s Regional Emergency Director for Europe, has stressed that there is no “one size fits all” solution to contain Covid-19. But governments across Europe must realise they need Swedish levels of sickness and unemployment benefits to ensure that people stay at home and quarantine. They also ought to adopt the interventionist Scandinavian policy that allows workers who lose their jobs to retrain.

The difference between Sweden and other European countries

Across Europe, unemployment appears to be mainly a responsibility for the unemployed. In Italy, where the unemployment rate is 12.9%, those out of work receive merely 30% of their average gross earnings of the previous three months. In the UK, the Resolution Foundation pointed out that under Rishi Sunak’s plans, a single adult homeowner, earning £20,000 a year, who loses their job, will also lose more than 70% of their net income.

By contrast, Sweden has been labelled the “best place in the world to lose your job”. Swedes are entitled to up to 80% of their previous salary for the first 200 days of inactivity – up to 4550 krona (£380) per week. Employers also pay a levy to job security councils, whose coaches match skills and ambitions with the current market. Meanwhile, sickness benefit is 80% of their current salary, to a maximum of 804 krona (£70) per day. This is much higher compared to the UK’s sickness benefit, which is £95.85 per week.

If European governments that locked down in March truly plan to emulate Sweden’s contested ‘soft-touch’ response, they will need to look towards the country as a model of social responsibility.

What’s to take and what’s to leave from Sweden’s response

When the virus hit Britain, people initially stood together. We stayed home and voluntarily applauded the NHS. But, around us, lives were lost and families forced to use foodbanks under a prime minister seemingly ill-equipped to lead a country in crisis. As government support is slashed, the next few months are likely to see increased apathy and public opposition.

Therefore, as infections surge across Europe once again, governments should look to follow Sweden’s example of prioritising social safeguards and protection. David Heyman, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology and Chair of a WHO advisory group, said countries “must face the fact that we are going to have to live with this virus, which is on the way to becoming endemic”. France mirrors Heyman’s words in pursuing a strategy that Prime Minister Jean Castex calls “living with the virus”. Spain has also rejected a second lockdown. “We have the tools we need,” said Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. “But we need the help of our citizens. Individual commitment is fundamental.”

Sweden may not have been spared the public health crisis, but their response has lessons in social responsibility. In order for citizens to commit to a ‘soft-touch’ approach to the pandemic – voluntarily adhering to guidance and rules – they need a government committed to standing with them and protecting them from sickness and unemployment.