Extending the lockdown for a further three weeks is unlikely to make a huge difference to the outlook for the economy, but could help save many more lives. Of course, the longer the restrictions are applied, the bigger the initial hit to GDP. However, more people are now starting to benefit from the financial support being put in place to protect businesses, jobs, and incomes.
It is right to ask whether the lockdown itself might cost lives. There are growing concerns that people are being discouraged from seeking treatment for conditions unrelated to coronavirus. However, there are also ways in which a temporary fall in economic activity could actually prevent some premature deaths, such as a reduction in traffic accidents.
These effects could go either way. But we do know for sure that it would be a catastrophe if the NHS were overwhelmed with coronavirus patients. What’s more, evidence from history (including how different US cities responded to the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918) shows that tougher restrictions can both help to save lives and reduce the long-term economic costs as well. The balance of risks therefore supports erring on the side of keeping the lockdown in place for a little longer.
In time, there might be a good argument for lifting the lockdown in different ways and at different stages in different parts of the country. But that time is not now. It would be even harder to maintain public consent if people felt their liberties were being restricted on the basis of some sort of postcode lottery.
Fortunately, we can still learn from the many different approaches being taken in other countries. These should provide the experimental evidence we need to gauge the best way to lift our own lockdown.
NO – says Philip Booth
The British government is running the response to covid-19 in the same way it runs everything else – in a centralised fashion, dictated from London. It is not obviously a successful approach.
Firstly, it should be noted that the question of the lockdown is not an issue of protecting the economy versus protecting health. There is a very strong causal relationship between unemployment and indebtedness and measures of mental health and mortality (including from suicide). The lockdown itself will be a killer, like Covid, if it goes on too long.
It is also notable that London is not like the rest of the country. Its infection rate is about twice as high, and it is geographically more dense than almost any other part of the country. If the government is applying any trade-offs at all in its decision making, it cannot be the case that ending the lockdown at the same time, in the same way, all throughout the country is the optimal policy.
There is also a paucity of information. We do not know what will work best when it comes to ending the lockdown.
In my view, it is time to experiment cautiously so that we can gather that information.
For example, the government could allow limited attendance at school in one region of the country, garden centres to open in another and small shops and charity shops in still others. Strict social distancing would still have to be observed, of course. This policy should be combined with a ramping up of testing – especially on the borders of regions where you have different policies in close geographical proximity.