Sweden Avoided a ‘Pingdemic’. Why Couldn’t We?

A reader, who wishes to remain anonymous, has sent the following post, comparing Britain’s enthusiastic embrace of a contact-tracing app with Sweden’s more considered approach.

As the U.K.’s ‘pingdemic’ spreads ever wider, wreaking havoc on hospitals, care homes, schools, supermarkets, and the economy, one person at least might afford himself a wry smile.

In the early months of the pandemic, many Swedish epidemiologists, virologists and other medical specialists implored their Prime Minister Stefan Löfven and Health Minister Lena Hallengren to build a contact-tracing app. Tech companies fell over themselves to claim they had the necessary expertise to do just that. Development actually got underway, but once state epidemiologist Dr Anders Tegnell and his team had evaluated the viability of such an app and come to the view it would cause excessive fear and large-scale disruption, Löfven was talked out of it and all work ceased.

In an interview on Swedish Television in May of last year, Tegnell said he didn’t think the idea of an app had been “properly thought through'” (He could have said the same of a great deal else of U.K. pandemic decision-making and implementation). He foresaw large numbers of ‘pings’ being generated and vast resources being expended on staffing and testing. Many people would be worried for no good reason and hospitals and care homes would come under more pressure as staff would have to self-isolate. He also questioned whether a distance as great as two metres for a period as short as 15 minutes were appropriate parameters.

Tellingly, when asked: “Wouldn’t it be worthwhile at least in controlling the spread of infections?”, he replied: “Few of the contacts (of a person with a positive test result) would be infected. For every person ill with Covid, I would reckon about 30 healthy people would be urged to self-isolate unnecessarily.”

Is there any evidence that the U.K. Government’s much-vaunted contact-tracing NHS COVID-19 App, run by NHS Test and Trace, has nevertheless been successful? According to politicians of all parties and medics of many disciplines, the answer is a resounding no.

Referring to the current £37 billion projected cost of Dido Harding’s test and trace operation, Lord Macpherson, who was Permanent Secretary at the Treasury from 2005 to 2016 and worked on 33 Budgets and 20 Spending Reviews, went so far as to say: “This wins the prize for the most wasteful and inept public spending programme of all time.”

To paraphrase Tegnell’s famous commentary on Sweden rejecting a large-scale lockdown of society: “It was as if the world had gone mad about contact-tracing apps, and everything we needed to consider was forgotten. The cases became too many and the political pressure got too strong. And then Sweden stood there rather alone.”

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