Sweden’s Chief Epidemiologist Anders Tegnell admitted yesterday that the country had, essentially, got it wrong by not shutting down tighter. Northern Ireland’s Health Minister Robin Swann also said there were things he would change. Still, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has overseen what may well be the world’s worst death toll per head in England, denies any errors whatsoever.
At least Dr Tegnell admits now that there were errors – in fairness, he had always warned that nothing was certain. Mr Johnson continues to deny it all, claiming that the rest of the world stands in awe at how the NHS has survived and then talking vaguely about “world-beating” testing. Such delusion is getting genuinely scary now.
Both the UK and Sweden have done themselves significant damage beyond the unnecessarily high death tolls they have inflicted upon themselves by not learning from others and refusing to try to understand the virus properly. They had previously each commanded a degree of global respect for their public administration and public health expertise; that is now hugely diminished.
The UK in fact exports expertise in public administration, but it is hard to see too many buyers for this now. The mishandling of the Coronavirus, symbolised by the nonsensical sight of two thirds of MPs queuing up for half a mile to vote to stop the other third from voting, follows the farce of Brexit in which the UK has overtly opted to crash its own economy and opt out of global protocols for everything from medical regulation to fighting terror. Far from looking on in awe, the rest of the world can scarcely bring itself to look on at all, such is the scale of the cringe which inevitably accompanies doing so..
Sweden too was widely regarded as a country of unrivalled expertise, not least in public health where life expectancy has risen to among the highest in the world. For weeks if not months the rest of the Western World seriously looked at Sweden and wondered if Sweden could be right and the rest of the world wrong – for many this was a serious possibility, such was the respect in which Sweden was held. However, as hundreds of people continue to die every week in Sweden while almost no one dies in any of its neighbouring Nordic countries, the view has shifted dramatically; it is dawning on everyone, including Sweden’s public health leadership, that after all the rest of the world was essentially right and Sweden catastrophically wrong. Even the UK has worked out now that testing is important, but still Sweden stumbles along effectively pretending this is just a bad (or actually not even a bad) ‘flu. Respect has turned into bemusement, which will soon give way to outright ridicule. Sweden’s reputation for sound management and excellence in public health will be undeniably tarnished, both at home and abroad.
Both countries will struggle to deal with the consequent adjustment, as others take over as beacons of sound public administration and expertise in public health. The UK in particular will have to ask itself fundamental questions about where the ongoing centralisation of political and economic power, at least within England, has ended up – what has happened is that an ever declining number of people with an every declining amount of expertise have ended up taking all the decisions, often in complete ignorance. Brexit and Coronavirus are obvious and major shambles, but they are accompanied by all kinds of minor ones, from a collapsing higher education sector to the farce of the rising costs around the HS2 rail project. Sweden too will face the trauma of having to recognise that those they trusted to take them through this challenge failed abjectly – does its whole system of expertise ahead of politics really work?
Both countries, their standing diminished, will now face the challenge of reform. Will they be able to meet that challenge? Certainly in one case, it is very doubtful.