In Brief

Coronavirus: circuit-breaker lockdown ‘not worth’ damage to economy, Sage expert claims

Ex-government adviser says move would ‘fail the net benefit test’ used by civil service

Imposing a national circuit-breaker lockdown in England “doesn’t make sense” financially, a former member of the government’s advisory group has concluded.

In an article for The Times Red Box political newsletter, expert Barry McCormick writes that an assessment of the policy’s impact, calculated using data reported by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), signals that such a move would “fail the net benefit test” standardly used by the civil service.  

Documents released by Sage earlier this month show that the group advised the government to implement an immediate “circuit breaker” lockdown in September in order to curb rising Covid-19 case rates. And Labour backed subsequent calls for a two-week shutdown, to run over the current half-term holiday, before the government announced its three-tier system for local lockdowns.

But according to the cost/benefit analysis by McCormick, a former chief economist at the Department of Health (DH), “the cost of lives saved by a circuit-breaker lockdown may not be worth the hit to the economy”, The Times reports. 

Using a variety of data, he concludes that “at the usual maximum price paid by DH for a year of life - £30,000”, the economic benefit of the lives saved by a lockdown would be £2.11bn. But the costs of lockdown is predicted to total £7.3bn in lost GDP.

As the BBC’s economics editor Faisal Islam notes, the first national lockdown “hit the economy incredibly hard”. The economy shrank by 20%, and a two-week circuit-breaker could slash off a further 5%, says Islam.

“It would probably lead to another quarter of shrinking growth, just as the technical recession from the first wave officially ended,” he adds.

However, other experts have argued that the circuit breaker is a necessary evil given the economic impact of further Covid deaths.

Writing in The Guardian, the director of public health and wellbeing for Blackburn, Dominic Harrison, argues that a circuit breaker is vital if the North is to be saved from economic disaster. He claims that “a national circuit breaker lockdown is both necessary and inevitable”, but notes that “many fear it may only be triggered when London gets to the same confirmed case numbers as the North”.

“By that time,” Harrison warns, “the region will have more deaths, a longer trajectory to exit, higher economic costs, higher unemployment and greater educational disadvantage.” 

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