Why Sweden remains mask-free

Freddie Sayers
Two soldiers in traditional uniform perform the changing of guards outside the Royal Palace in Stockholm, Sweden, 22 July 2020 - Ali Lorestani/TT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Two soldiers in traditional uniform perform the changing of guards outside the Royal Palace in Stockholm, Sweden, 22 July 2020 - Ali Lorestani/TT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Masks may only have been mandatory in British shops since yesterday, and British airports for a couple of months, but what I saw as I arrived in Sweden this past week already felt oddly transgressive, almost indecent.

At no point on the journey does anyone tell you that you can remove your face mask, so when we landed in Stockholm, my fellow passengers on the quarter-full SAS flight from Heathrow kept them on up the gangway and into the airport terminal. Then you notice that the customs officers aren’t wearing them as they check your passport, nor the airport staff swooshing around on silent scooters, but you keep it on just in case. Only when you finally emerge from the baggage hall and into the row of waiting taxis do you realise: nobody is wearing one. Not a single person. In Sweden, it’s a mask-free world.

In central Stockholm the restaurants and shops are busy, even if less busy than they might normally be; there’s a table-service-only rule, so many bars have queues of patient Swedes outside to avoid any overcrowding inside. The outside watering holes of Stureplan and along the waterfront at Strandvägen are positively booming.

There’s nothing reckless or denialist about the atmosphere here; nor anything of the grim experiment-gone-wrong that much of the international media would have you believe about a country which did not impose a national lockdown.

People are behaving responsibly, social distancing where possible, but determined to continue the serious business of living their lives. In the warm sunshine of a Stockholm evening, I got a sense of a people for whom unencumbered enjoyment of their brief summer — those precious moments of beauty and levity and warmth on the skin — is not a “nice-to-have” that should be surrendered on an uncertain cautionary principle. It is something closer to a human right.

Coronavirus Sweden Spotlight Chart - Cases default
Coronavirus Sweden Spotlight Chart - Cases default

I interviewed the architect of Sweden’s Covid-19 policy, Anders Tegnell, for UnHerd’s LockdownTV.

It’s fair to say he’s feeling chipper — suntanned, back from his own summer break, and looking at a set of coronavirus figures that are going rapidly in the right direction. Case numbers, having first surged as they massively increased testing, are now coming down dramatically; admissions into ICU are now so low that for two days last week there were none at all (the first time that’s happened since early March); and deaths with Covid-19, despite being counted more stringently than almost anywhere in the world, are down to lower levels than ever since the peak.

The uncomfortable fact remains that Sweden has had a much higher total mortality per capita than its Scandinavian neighbours (although still under that of the UK), but Tegnell insists that that was mainly the result of poor shielding of care homes, not their lack of lockdown. They’ve improved that and are now seeing the results. Certainly, whatever they are doing now seems to be working — and that doesn’t include wearing masks.

Tegnell makes no secret of the fact that he is baffled by other countries’ rush to mandate face masks. “The evidence base for using masks in society is still very weak,” he tells me – despite lots of countries now mandating them in different ways “we haven’t seen any new evidence coming up, which is a little bit surprising I can say.” He believes that masks may be counter-productive as people then forget social distancing and even go out when they are ill, which ends up increasing the spread of the disease. And most importantly, things are going perfectly well without them. “At a time like right now, when we have extremely few admissions into hospitals and the total number of cases is rapidly falling, it is not the time to introduce something else.”

Coronavirus live map cases tracker
Coronavirus live map cases tracker

All of which, of course, could be said of the UK as well.

As a half-Swede I’ve been paying anxious attention to their more laissez-faire response to Covid-19. It seems fair to grant Tegnell his request of deferring full judgement until a year from now, once we know how other countries fare in the autumn and spring. But whatever the final outcome, there is something about the atmosphere of the discussion in Sweden that I wish we had a bit more of in the UK.

Decisions are taken entirely by the health agency with almost no involvement from politicians, which lowers the temperature from the outset. Anders Tegnell is a physician and technocrat with no voters to please or polls to fret about. The prime minister has been keeping a distinctly low profile on the issue.

There’s also a Swedish bloody-mindedness that in other scenarios can be maddening but in this context is a breath of fresh air. They will stick to their plan, make decisions based on their reading of the evidence, and not bow to social media furores or international condemnation, whether from their Nordic neighbours or the New York Times (who recently dubbed Sweden “the world’s cautionary tale”). At a time of such widespread insecurity and finger-pointing it feels like an oasis of calm.

Most of all there’s a clarity about those aspects of life that are worth defending, even in the midst of a global pandemic. Swedish children have not missed a single day of education; and they have protected the open society they cherish.

Perhaps a culture’s readiness to change on a sixpence to a “new normal” is inversely correlated to their affection for, and confidence in, the “old normal.” The Swedes like their way of life, and are enviably reluctant to give it up.

Freddie Sayers is executive editor of Unherd