Sweden’s crisis agency wanted ‘earlier and more’ Covid measures, claims former director

Sweden's crisis agency wanted 'earlier and more' Covid measures, claims former director
Dan Eliasson, the former head of the Civil Contingencies Agency claimed he had pushed for earlier action. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT
The former head of Sweden's Civil Contingencies Agency has told a parliamentary committee that his agency sounded the alarm over Covid-19 preparedness at the start of February, and pushed for earlier and stricter measures throughout, but was overruled by the country's health authorities.

Dan Eliasson, who resigned in January after it emerged that he had taken a holiday in the Canary Islands, told a parliamentary committee that his agency had warned of shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as medical masks, gloves, and visors, as early as February. 

“We rang the alarm early,” he told the Committee on the Constitution, whose role is to analyse the government’s performance. “On February 6th, we dropped a report on the situation on the Justice Department’s desk. The main point was that we were in dire straits when it came to protective equipment.” 

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Eliasson said that the Civil Contingencies Agency had frequently pushed for earlier and more thoroughgoing measures to combat the spread of coronavirus. 

“It’s better to be on the safe side, take action early, get on an emergency footing and act, than to be careful and slow and wait,” he said.

Eliasson named protective equipment and digital contact tracing as two of the measures for which his agency had called for earlier action, but he acknowledged that a crisis agency should always expect pushback from ministries and other agencies. 

“There are a number of situations where MSB would have liked to have seen more and earlier measures,” he said. “But it is in the nature of a crisis agency to be like Krösa-Maja and shout ‘typhoid’ than to be like Baghdad Bob and not even admit it when the tanks roll in. We can’t expect to get everything we want.”

Krösa-Maja is a character created by Swedish children’s author Astrid Lindgren who always expects imminent disaster. 

‘We were right’

Johan Carlson, the director of the Public Health Agency, denied that the Civil Contingencies Agency had questioned the strategy his agency had adopted, saying that there had been discussions over issues like the decision to scrap Sweden’s planned contact tracing app, but not broader criticisms. 

In his answers to the committee, he reiterated his claim that Sweden’s strategy had been essentially no different from that of any other country in Europe. Sweden’s strategy, he added, had remained constant throughout the pandemic. 

“There aren’t different ways to push down the level of infection. You push down as much as you can and then you get a reduction both in the level of infection in society, and also reduce the pressure on the healthcare system,” he said. 

Where Sweden had been right, he added, was in its decision not to impose the sort of drastic lockdowns employed elsewhere in Europe. 

“There are those who believed that you could get rid of the infection completely by shutting down everything in society. We didn’t believe that and we were right about that,” he said. 

When it came to the Public Health Agency’s decision during the first wave of the pandemic to only test those who were sufficiently ill to require treatment, Carlson said that this had been a necessary prioritization. 

“We realised that there weren’t the resources in the regions to test everyone,” he said. “It was absolutely crucial to test where we would get the most benefits, those who were sick and were being admitted, so as not to have a spread of infection in health care and elderly care facilities. We simply didn’t have the resources.” 

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