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 Scandinavian country had achieved a similar outcome to the UK without having to resort to draconian rules.
Throughout the pandemic, Stockholm stuck to a voluntary approach to restrictions, relying on people to exercise personal responsibility.
His remarks come as The Telegraph reveals how Boris Johnson was warned by Britain’s top civil servant over the impact of lockdowns.
Just days before the then prime minister shut down the country for a second time, Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, told him doing so would be “terrible for other outcomes”.
‘A voluntary approach’
Mr Hunt was asked in an interview with GB News whether Sweden’s approach had proved right compared with the zero-Covid strategy pursued by some countries.
He said: “I don’t think it was quite so black and white as that. We used the law, Sweden used a voluntary approach, but we had broadly fairly 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 such a huge difference.”
The Chancellor said the UK was “the very best in the world” at rolling out the vaccine but admitted the early response to the virus was flawed.
He admitted that the contingency plans for an outbreak, put in place while he was health secretary, were designed for a flu pandemic so were blindsided by the Covid outbreak.
‘We all have to be humble’
“We all have to be humble about the events of the pandemic, because I don’t think we did as well as we could have done as a country,” he said.
“Looking back on it, the approach that I advocated when I was chairing the Health Select Committee was really to follow what they were doing in Korea and Taiwan where they avoided national lockdowns by having a much more effective test-and-trace system.”
It comes as WhatsApp messages obtained by The Telegraph reveal how senior civil servants expressed early concerns about the potential impact of the second lockdown in November 2020.
In a message sent on Oct 29, 2020, two days before the curbs were announced, Mr Case wrote: “I think we have to be brutally honest with people. Full lockdowns optimise our society/economy for tackling the Covid R rate – but they 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.
Worried by ‘minor ailments’
The revelations are contained in the Lockdown Files, a cache of more than 100,000 messages circulated among senior politicians and officials and obtained by The Telegraph.
The messages also show ministers were worried non-Covid excess deaths would be fuelled by the public not being checked for “minor ailments” that could “turn into acute” problems later on.
The Lockdown Files also disclose that in May 2021 a “rapid review” was undertaken into an alarming rise in the “sad deaths of children” in mental health in-patient units across England.
There were also fears at the time over an “upcoming epidemic” in children’s respiratory viruses caused by lockdown suppressing infection.
NHS England said it had no record of the rapid review that took place and The Telegraph could find no evidence of any official report having been published.
Mr Hunt’s remarks were welcomed by Tory MPs who opposed the Covid lockdowns and want to ensure lessons are learned from the response to the pandemic.
‘Restrictions on freedom’
Peter Bone, MP for Wellingborough, said: “Obviously the restrictions on freedom that the government went for were based on what they thought was right at the time.
“But there were people who were warning of the damage lockdown does for individual liberty, for people’s mental wellbeing, but also for the economy.
“I think with hindsight without the lockdown we would’ve had pretty much the same result. If you advise people to do something in this country they tend to do it. You don’t have to have draconian laws.”
Sweden took a soft-touch approach to policing people’s behaviour during the pandemic, keeping shops and restaurants open throughout.
The government relied heavily on people voluntarily following guidance to stick to social distancing, wear a mask and “travel only if you must”.
It passed legal restrictions in precious few instances, with the main area being limits on the number of people who could attend large social gatherings.
ONS figures released in December showed that Sweden suffered one of the lowest excess mortality rates in Europe, well below that of the UK.