Jeremy Hunt has said Britain has “a lot to learn” from Sweden’s decision not to impose a mandatory Covid lockdown.
The chancellor acknowledged that the Nordic country had achieved a similar result to the UK without having to resort to draconian rules.
Throughout the pandemic, Stockholm has stuck to a voluntary approach to restrictions, relying on people to exercise personal responsibility.
His comments come as the Telegraph reveals how Boris Johnson was warned by Britain’s most senior civil servant about the impact of lockdowns.
Just days before the then prime minister locked down the country for a second time, Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, told him it would be “terrible for other outcomes”.
Mr Hunt was asked in an interview with GB News whether Sweden’s approach had proved correct compared to the zero-Covid strategy followed by some countries.
He said: “I don’t think it was that black and white. We used the law, Sweden used a voluntary approach, but we had broadly quite similar levels of compliance with the lockdown.
“So in that respect, I think there’s a lot to learn from what Sweden did. But I don’t think there was that much of a difference.”
The chancellor said the UK was “the best in the world” in rolling out the vaccine, but admitted the early response to the virus was flawed.
He admitted that emergency plans for an outbreak, put in place while he was health minister, were designed for a flu pandemic and were thus blindsided by the Covid outbreak.
“We must all be humble”
“We should all be humbled by the events of the pandemic, because I don’t think we did as well as we could as a country,” he said.
“Looking back, the approach I advocated when I was chair of the health select committee was really to follow what they did in Korea and Taiwan where they avoided national lockdowns by having a much more efficient testing and tracing system.”
It comes as WhatsApp messages obtained by The Telegraph reveal how senior civil servants raised early concerns about the potential impact of a second lockdown in November 2020.
In a message sent on October 29, 2020, two days before the restrictions were announced, Mr Case wrote: “I think we have to be brutally honest with people. Full lockdowns optimize our society/economy for dealing with the Covid R rate – but are terrible for other outcomes (non-Covid health, jobs, education, social cohesion, mental health, etc.).”
His message was circulated in a WhatsApp group that included Matt Hancock, the then health secretary. Prof Sir Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer. Sir Patrick Vallance, Chief Scientific Adviser. and Dominic Cummings, Mr Johnson’s chief adviser.
I worry about “minor ailments”
The revelations are contained in the Lockdown Files, a cache of more than 100,000 messages circulated between senior politicians and officials and obtained by The Telegraph.
The messages also show ministers were concerned that excess non-Covid deaths would be fueled by the public not being screened for “minor illnesses” that could “turn into acute” problems later.
Lockdown files also reveal that a “rapid review” was carried out in May 2021 into a worrying increase in “tragic child deaths” in inpatient mental health units across England.
There were also fears at the time of an “imminent epidemic” in childhood respiratory viruses caused by an infection that the lockdown suppresses.
NHS England said it had no record of the rapid review taking place and the Telegraph could find no evidence of any official report being published.
Mr Hunt’s remarks were welcomed by Tory MPs who have opposed Covid lockdowns and want to ensure lessons are learned from the response to the pandemic.
“Restrictions on freedom”
Peter Bown, MP for Wellingborough, said: “Obviously the restrictions on freedom that the government called for were based on what they thought was right at the time.
“But there were people who warned about the damage the lockdown is causing to individual freedom, to people’s mental well-being, but also to the economy.
“I think that in retrospect without the lockdown we would have had almost the same result. If you advise people to do something in this country, they tend to do it. You don’t need to have draconian laws.”
Sweden has taken a soft approach to policing people’s behavior during the pandemic, keeping shops and restaurants open throughout the pandemic.
The government relied heavily on people voluntarily following instructions to observe social distancing, wear a mask and “travel only if necessary”.
He passed legal restrictions in valuable cases, chiefly limits on the number of people who could attend large social gatherings.
ONS figures published in December showed that Sweden suffered one of the lowest excess mortality rates in Europe, well below that of the UK.