Border Controls, Not Lockdowns, Explain the Success of Denmark, Norway and Finland

I’ve previously explained why “we have to compare Sweden to its neighbours” isn’t a convincing argument for lockdowns. However, the argument keeps cropping up on social media. So I’ll have another go.

As I noted in my previous post, Sweden has had more deaths than the other Nordic countries – whether you use ‘confirmed COVID-19 deaths per million people’ or age-adjusted excess mortality. 

However, this doesn’t mean that lockdowns are what account for the divergent mortality trends. In other words, it doesn’t follow that if Sweden had locked down at the same time as its neighbours, then it would have seen many fewer deaths from COVID-19.

Even if you believe that lockdowns were the main factor behind the other Nordics’ low death rates (and they probably weren’t), the epidemic was already more advanced in Sweden by the time its neighbours locked down. And since lockdowns don’t have much impact unless case numbers are low (as in Australia and New Zealand), locking down probably wouldn’t have made a big difference. 

Moreover, there’s good reason to believe that lockdowns weren’t the main factor behind the other Nordic’s low death tolls. Rather, the main factor was probably border controls.

Let’s examine what each country did during the first wave, using the Oxford Blavatnik School’s COVID-19 Government Response Tracker. (I will ignore Iceland, since it’s a small island in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, and its geographic advantages are obvious.) 

Recall that the Blavatnik School’s database includes several measures of government restrictions. I will focus on mandatory workplace closures, mandatory stay-at-home orders, and restrictions on international travel (i.e., border controls). 

Let’s start with mandatory stay-at-home orders. None of the Nordics had any days of mandatory stay-at-home orders during the first wave. (This is in contrast to the U.K., which was hit much harder than all four Nordics, and had a mandatory stay-at-home order in place between March 23rd and May 12th.)

Now mandatory workplace closures. Norway did introduce these quite early on March 12th. However, Denmark did not introduce them until March 18th – just five days before the U.K. And Finland did not introduce them until April 14th – more than three weeks after the U.K.

These comparisons reveal that the other Nordics did not lock down particularly hard or particularly early. Indeed, all three had less strict lockdowns than the U.K. (which saw many more deaths during the first wave). Finland’s success is particularly difficult to explain with reference to lockdowns since the country did not introduce any real measures until after the peak of infections.

Yet when it comes to border controls, there is a clear disparity with the U.K.. Finland introduced border screening on February 6th, and was followed by Denmark on March 3rd and Norway on March 14th. Denmark then imposed a total border closure on March 14th, and was followed by Norway on March 15th and Finland on March 16th.

Sweden did not introduce border screening until March 19th, and never closed its borders. The U.K. did not introduce any border controls during the first wave (as recommended by the Government’s scientific advisers).

Given that none of the other three Nordics had a particularly strict lockdown, their success mainly owes to strict and early border controls. While mandatory workplace closures may have had an impact in Denmark and Norway, most of the suppression was probably achieved via voluntary social distancing, as well as basic measures (like restrictions on large gatherings).

It’s true that border controls might have worked in Sweden, but this is a separate issue from whether the country should have locked down. And since Sweden’s epidemic burgeoned earlier than its neighbours’, imposing a total border closure in mid-March probably wouldn’t have made much difference either.

What about the second wave? Here there is slightly less to explain, since Denmark did see a moderate number of deaths – at least going by the official numbers. Norway and Finland, by contrast, managed to keep case and death numbers low throughout the winter.

Yet if we look again at the Blavatnik School’s database, it’s very difficult to pin Sweden’s higher death rate on the lack of restrictions. As a matter of fact, Sweden had more restrictions in place than Denmark and Finland for most of the winter. Here’s a graph showing the overall stringency index in each country. (The index is far from perfect, but it gives you a general sense of what happened.)

Once again, none of the Nordics had any days of mandatory stay-at-home orders during the second wave. When it comes to mandatory workplace closures, these were actually introduced earlier in Sweden than in Denmark or Finland. Sweden introduced them on November 24th, whereas Finland waited until November 30th, and Denmark waited until December 9th.

All four Nordics had border screening in place throughout the winter, so restrictions on international travel may have been less decisive than in the first wave. Evidently, Sweden and Denmark’s controls were not able to stop the virus getting a foothold in their respective countries.

What factors do explain Norway and Finland’s success in the second wave is not entirely clear. (They have fewer international ports-of-entry, which may have made border controls easier to enforce.) But there is little evidence their success was due to stricter lockdowns.

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