Johan Giesecke, Sweden's former chief epidemiologist and a member of the WHO's strategic and technical advisory group for infectious hazards, made the recommendation at the Oireachtas Covid-19 committee yesterday morning.
Dr Giesecke has now backtracked on the recommendation following the meeting, saying he was "not an Irishman", was not “prescribing anything for Ireland," and did not know if herd immunity was possible.
Appearing before the Oireachtas committee yesterday, Dr Giesecke said the Government should allow a controlled spread of the virus among younger people and concentrate on protecting the old and frail, with frequent tests of staff and residents in care homes.
Several medical experts appeared before the committee, which was examining options for eliminating community transmission of Covid-19.
Dr Giesecke told the committee that Sweden's “soft lockdown” worked because the country trusted its people. He added that “people are not stupid” and will respond if told how to protect themselves.
However, Dr Giesecke later appeared on Drivetime on RTÉ Radio One, where he said Sweden “could get better” at controlling the spread of the virus.
He said everyone in his country was “holding their breath” right now as they had seen an increase in cases over the past week.
Dr Giesecke said he was not recommending “letting the virus run rampant in the population” but rather that the focus should be on “protecting the old ones” and doing “everything to protect people from getting very ill or dying.”
We still don’t know if herd immunity is possible or not. It’s never been the Swedish policy to go there.
The doctor also clarified he had not recommended that Ireland adopt a policy of herd immunity: “We still don’t know if herd immunity is possible or not. It’s never been the Swedish policy to go there.”
“I’m not prescribing anything for Ireland. you have to make your own decisions, that’s not just up to me. I’m just saying the way that it is in my country,” he said.
Dr Giesecke said he appeared at the Oireachtas committee to report back on Sweden’s experiences rather than say that other countries should adopt a similar policy.
“I’m not an Irishman, I can’t prescribe to you or your Government what you should be doing,” he said.
Following Dr Giesecke's initial comments at the Oireachtas committee, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he did not support a herd immunity approach to dealing with the virus.
“I don’t believe in the herd immunity approach... and those who advocated it early on in my view, didn’t fully realise the impact of this virus on people and on people’s health," he said.
"Even if you survive it can be very damaging it seems to lungs and to people’s health over the medium term – some people, not all people.”