Sweden, notably, chose not to close businesses and restrict movement early on in the pandemic despite pressure from health experts, while other European nations followed that path.
Researchers in Germany studying the likely impact of tougher Covid restrictions in the first half of 2020 found a shutdown may have reduced infections and deaths in the country by about 75 per cent and 38 per cent, respectively.
Sweden recorded close to 5,800 deaths by the beginning of August, suggesting a nine-week lockdown could have cut deaths by around 2,000.
The team, led by Benjamin Born from the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, compared Sweden’s experience with its Scanidanaivan neighbours as well as the Netherlands.
They found the effect of lockdowns was “sizable and robust”, while closing shops and businesses in order to slow the spread of the virus “would not have caused much additional output loss”.
The team also noted that despite a lack of government-imposed lockdown in Sweden, there was “substantial voluntary social restraint”, meaning people reduced the number of trips they made and social interactions they undertook, “although the adjustment was less strong than under the lockdown scenario”.
Gernot Müller, professor of international macroeconomics at Tübingen University and one of the paper’s authors, said a lockdown during the first wave would have lowered infections and deaths “substantially”.
“But because lockdowns also come with social costs which we do not analyse, we are not taking a stand as to whether Sweden should have imposed a lockdown,” he toldThe Times.
Sweden was an outlier in Europe when it decided last spring not to impose strict lockdown measures, first imposed in Italy on 9 March. The Netherlands was the last country to implement a lockdown 15 days later.
The lockdowns typically involved the closing of non-essential shops as well as a ban on gatherings of more than two people. In some instances, the ban applied only to gatherings of 10 people or more.
However the Swedish government chose to ignore advice from health experts and primary and secondary schools, restaurants, cafes and shops remained open, while gatherings of up to 50 people were still allowed.
Sweden’s state epidemiologist, who led the country’s controversial approach to tackling the coronavirus pandemic, later admitted more restrictions on movement and gatherings would have helped avoid a high death toll.
Andre Tegnell said in June: “If we would encounter the same disease, with exactly what we know about it today, I think we would land midway between what Sweden did and what the rest of the world did.”
Figures from the statistics office showed more Swedes died in April 2020 than in any one month for 19 years. About 90 per cent of the deaths were of people over the age of 70 and living in care homes.
The Swedish government later introduced curbs and in March this year implemented fresh restrictions on movement, businesses and sport in an effort to slow a third wave of the virus.