What we can learn from Sweden

8 August 2020

9:00 AM

8 August 2020

9:00 AM

It is a particular pleasure to be returning to the columns of The Spectator, more than half a century after I became editor. The paper has been part of my life for a very long time. When I was at school, more than 70 years ago, we were all told to read Harold Nicolson’s column every week, to learn the art of essay-writing. I like to think that it was still a good paper in my time, but it is a much better one now. Fraser Nelson and his team are doing an excellent job.

Our lives remain dominated by the plague, aka Covid-19. The government’s handling of it — admittedly a difficult task — has not been brilliant, but no worse than the performance of its scientific and medical advisory group (no acronym has ever been less apt than Sage). There is one obvious lesson to be learned: the lesson from Sweden. The Swedes, alone in Europe, declined to have a lockdown. The outcome, in terms of deaths and health in general, seems to have been pretty average for Europe — worse than some, better than others (including, in particular, the UK). But comparisons are difficult, given all the factors involved. However, one fact is plain. The damage to Sweden’s economy has been far less than to every other European economy. While the BBC, with its characteristic indifference to the facts, insists on referring to this as damage done by Covid, it is of course overwhelmingly done by our response, especially by lockdown. The lesson is clear. If, as widely expected, there is a second wave later this year, there must on no account be a second national lockdown. Our economic prospects are already grim enough. In any case, the notion that public policy should be based on reducing the risk of death, regardless of all other factors, is palpably absurd, and certainly not what it has been based on hitherto. If it were, we would have a speed limit on the roads of 10 mph.

It seems there is to be a campaign against obesity. Obesity is certainly a health risk, and — at least to western eyes — not very attractive. When I was chancellor I was undoubtedly obese, but too busy to do anything about it. When I ceased being chancellor I decided to get a grip, and devised a diet which enabled me to lose five stone in less than a year. On the back of that, I wrote a diet book which became a bestseller. And diet is what matters, above all simply eating and drinking less (less alcohol, sadly). Boris Johnson appears to think more exercise is also needed. That is a mistake. While exercise is certainly good for fitness, it has nothing to do with the avoidance of fatness. Naturally, some foods are worse than others, which makes me puzzled by the government’s reported aversion to taxing them. In the present crisis, the Chancellor is going to need all the extra revenue he can make a case for raising.

Obesity is almost certainly part of the reason for the proportionately greater deaths among the BAME population. It is well established that there is a higher incidence of obesity among the BAME community — and a relationship between obesity and Covid deaths. It is also true that BAME people make up a much larger proportion of the NHS and healthcare workers in the Covid front line than the population as a whole. Genetic factors may be at work too. But the explanation being reported by the BBC that this is due to institutional racism is manifestly untrue, and a monstrous attempt to exploit racial differences for political ends. A small minority in the UK are indeed racist. Yet to suggest that the whole country is institutionally racist is palpably false. Not that it could possibly cause deaths from the plague even if it were correct.

Given the extent of the present and prospective economic disaster, it is bizarre that the government apparently intends to double down on its net zero carbon emissions target. If there was ever a case of out of the frying pan into the fire, this is it. The cost to the UK of net zero runs into many trillions, and for what? Official figures suggest that mean global temperatures are rising at a little more than a tenth of a degree a decade, hardly a disaster. In any event, while we are engaging in this pointless green masochism, China is building coal-fired power stations, both at home and overseas, hand over fist.

What has happened to the word ‘very’? It seems to have been completely supplanted by ‘incredibly’. Nothing now, for example, is very difficult: it is always incredibly difficult. There are two good reasons why this should cease. First, short words are always better than long words. Second, ‘incredibly’ means ‘unbelievably’, and most of the things to which ‘incredibly’ is applied are eminently believable.

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