ANALYSIS: Will anyone resign over Sweden’s coronavirus strategy?

ANALYSIS: Will anyone resign over Sweden's coronavirus strategy?
Will Johan Carlson (left), Lena Hallengren (centre) or Anders Tegnell (right), end up resigning? Photo: TT
The Swedish opposition has fired the first warning shots in the coming blame game over Sweden's coronavirus strategy. Will it end in someone being fired or resigning?
The leader of the Moderate Party's youth wing on Sunday wrote an article demanding the resignation of Health Minister Lena Hallengren over the “total failure” of the Swedish strategy. 
 
“It's time for Lena Hallengren to resign as health minister,” wrote Matilda Ekeblad in the Expressen newspaper. “The delayed responses and lack of leadership means that the Swedish strategy has failed completely.” 
 
It is not only the Swedish political right which is talking about resignations. 
 
On Sunday, Daniel Suhonen, who leads the Social Democrat Katalyst think tank, suggested that Sweden's prime minister Stefan Lövfen might end up sacking a minister, as he did in a previous scandal over IT security at the Swedish Transport Agency.
“If we had escaped a second wave and pretty much a lockdown, then it would have been a success. Now it is a great defeat with many dead and ill,” he told the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper. “It is possible that he's happy with Health Minister Lena Hallengren, but he might have to sacrifice her anyway.” 
 
Eva Burman, the managing editor of the local Eskilstuna Kuriren newspaper — an early critic of the strategy — told The Local, that the shift in the political climate reflected a growing consensus in Sweden that the strategy had failed. 
 

“More and more people are now questioning the Swedish society,” she told The Local. 
 
“The [health care watchdog] IVO's report was the game changer, and the decision of the Public Health Agency to ease restrictions in the beginning of Autumn, when the infection was going up in other countries in Europe. Those two things combined have changed the perspective of the Swedish strategy.” 
 
The question is who, exactly, to blame? 
 
Sweden's government has largely delegated responsibility for deciding the strategy to the Public Health Agency, following the 'Swedish government model', or Svenska förvaltningsmodellen, a convention according to which powerful agencies are responsible for the day-to-day running of their areas. 

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But Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Prime Minister of Norway and former World Health Organisation head, on Sunday expressed wonder at how the government had delayed so long before seizing control from the Public Health Agency, saying it was “completely unbelievable”. 
 
“It's surprising that they have so far followed the assessments the Public Health Agency has made,” she said in an interview with the VG newspaper.  
 
“I've watched it develop, shaken my head and asked, 'how is this possible?'. How Anders Tegnell has judged the situation, that's one thing. But Sweden is a country with a government and a parliament.” 
 
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Prime Minister Stefan Löfven on Friday gave Hallengren his strong backing, daring the opposition to table a no confidence motion. 
 
“I have full confidence in the ministers in the government,” he said in answer to a question from The Local. “And if any party in the parliament wants to question trust in the government, it's up to them.” 
 
Hallengren herself argued that the opposition was not in a position to criticise. 
 
“There haven't been a lot of other proposals from other political parties — the opposite,” she told The Local on Friday. “They have been saying [we should] together as one country to make sure that authorities, agencies, and civil society face this pandemic together. So really after saying that for six months, to then have an idea that maybe it could have been done better… I don't know.” 
 
Dagens Nyheter's political editor Amanda Sokolnicki made the same point in an opinion piece published on Saturday, reminding readers that the leaders of the Moderate, Christian Democrat and Sweden Democrat parties had all broadly backed Sweden's approach. 
 
The Moderate's leader, Ulf Kristersson, has claimed that he pushed the government to be “faster with testing, contact tracing, isolating and protective equipment”. 
 
But as Sokolnicki points out, regional governments controlled by his party share some of the blame for failings on all three of these, while Kristersson himself had backed the Public Health Agency, saying he didn't want to be “a hobby epidemiologist”. 
 
“The big question is not how good everything would have been with another prime minister, but why the opposition… has been so weak,” she concludes. 
 
Responsibility for handling the pandemic has also been split, between many different parts of society, many of which are controlled by opposition parties. 
 
The regions, many of which are controlled by the Moderate party, are responsible for healthcare, the municipalities for elderly care, the Public Health Agency for pandemic strategy, and the Board of Health and Welfare for coordinating healthcare more broadly.
 
“It's difficult to say exactly what has gone wrong,” Jenny Madestam, an associate professor at Södertorn University, told The Local. 
 
“Is it the Public Health Agency and Anders Tegnell? Is that the problem? Or is it the way the Swedish democratic system is organised, with regions responsible for health care and so on? But of course, someone needs to take responsibility.” 
 
She said that Johan Carlson, the director of the Public Health Agency, who is due to retire next October, might end up resigning. 
 
“I think they will point at this agency and say they have given the wrong suggestions and not been acting fast enough, but maybe some of the ministers will also be in the centre of attention, maybe Lena Hallengren,” she said. 
 
Eva Burman predicted that the pressure for resignations would only grow in the coming months. 
 
“We haven’t seen the end of this,” she told The Local. “I think Christmas is going to bring an even steeper curve, and we’re going to have even more deaths. I think someone will have to resign. Otherwise, we’re sending a very strong signal out to our society that no one takes responsibility.”
 
 

Member comments

  1. Greetings from the UK. I have strong links with Sweden and like to keep updated about what goes on in that lovely country (and the rest of the world, for that matter).

    My humble opinion is that those who have to make the decisions are doing so based on the evidence they see and the advice they are given. The rest of us have the wisdom of hindsight.

    In the UK, we have BoJo – Boris Johnson – and his Conservative government and advisors. I am not a supporter of the party in government, but I respect the decisions made by Boris Johnson, and Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health. I laugh and cry at the same time when I hear Keir Starmer (leader of the opposition Labour Party) who criticise almost because that is their role in parliament.

    The decision-makers in every country are reacting to a virus like no other and are doing their utmost to reduce deaths and the strain all the hospitalisations are having on each countries health service. Instead of criticising them, why not think about those who have dies (condolences) and those who have recovered and then praise those people who work on the front line. Every countries’ health service is under intense strain and the general public have a duty to follow the rules laid down by their government.

    Perhaps every country should boycott imports and ban exports to and from China, a country whose leaders tried to suppress the seriousness of the virus and, because of the apparent lack of hygiene in their street markets, has caused the pandemic.

  2. This is a very well researched and informative piece of reporting. It has helped me understand actions and more importantly inactions from the Public Health Agency, the government, and the separate regions. The problem isn’t just Tegnell and Lena Hallengren. Oversight and administration of health policy seems to be a fragmented mess that has been ineffective in dealing with such a pandemic crisis.

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