We have now (15/4/2020) been in lockdown for just over three weeks. Because of the natural dynamics of the virus, we should not have expected to see clear evidence of success (or failure) in the first couple of weeks.
But three weeks is long enough to ask the question – so what is the answer? According to the government, it is ‘yes.’ But many people have become sceptical of the official pronouncements on the virus, so we decided to take a look ourselves.
Our analysis shows that lockdown is indeed showing clear signs of success in terms of reducing the spread of the virus, but there are serious gaps in the surrounding policies which the government should now fix:
- there is clear evidence that the lockdown is working to contain the virus, and that if sustained, the virus will go into retreat – but there are still medical failings which need to be addressed;
- economically, and in terms of human suffering, it is clear that the measures put in place by the government, though dramatic, have not been enough;
- the priorities now must be to sustain the medical success and ally it with successful economic support measures.
The lockdown is working to contain the virus
Until lockdown, the scale of the virus was doubling roughly every three days. And for several days after lockdown, that continued. But the chart below shows what would have happened without lockdown as well as what would happen with a soft lockdown, a hard lockdown (and even the hypothetical case of a complete end to new infections).
The top line represents what would have happened with no lockdown. The next two lines show plausible lockdown scenarios, and the bottom line shows what would have happened if the lockdown had been able to completely eliminate any new infections. You can clearly see that the actual reported deaths are following roughly the two plausible lockdown lines – though it is too early to say exactly how successful it is being, the deviation from the laissez-faire line is now obvious.
So this is a tremendously important result which should not be jeopardised by an uncontrolled unlocking on May 31. The dotted line shows what the effect of such an uncontrolled unlock would be: it would push the ultimate death toll from below 70,000 to around 400,000. That is 330,000 unnecessary deaths.
If the lockdown is sustained with this level of success, we can expect to see the virus going into full-scale retreat.
The number of severe cases should soon start to fall, and the number of asymptomatic cases (which we do not know) has probably fallen already.
We are now around Day 30: at this rate of progress, by day 210, the number of severe cases would be down to just a handful. The problem is not solved – because of the risk of resurgence – but the first decisive battle has been won. And our article on ending lockdown safely suggests that we will not need to wait another 180 days for a solution.
That is not to say that there are no important medical failings in the government’s new approach. There clearly are: personal protective equipment for frontline staff is still inadequate; those living at care homes and their carers are exposed to unacceptable levels of risk; the rate of testing is still far below the government’s targets, and these targets themselves are too low; and there are important gaps in the lockdown such as uncontrolled international travel.
The government’s measures to support people and firms have been significant but not adequate
The lockdown, of course was designed to reduce interpersonal contact, and it was clear that this would have a profound effect on the economy. The latest estimates suggest that this has indeed happened: GDP this year may be as much as 35 percent below last year. That is a truly extraordinary contraction, far greater than the one caused by the Global Financial Crisis.
The government recognised this and the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, introduced a range of measures which by any normal standards were extraordinary. But even so, it is clear that they are not enough.
Many businesses which might otherwise have been viable are now at risk of bankruptcy; charities and those they support are struggling to the extent that a further rescue package had to be introduced for them recently; the young and the poorly paid are bearing the brunt of the pain imposed on workers; and in general the most vulnerable are suffering the most.
The priority now must be to sustain the fight against the virus and ally it with economic support
So the good news is that the fight against the virus is beginning to show clear signs of success. And there are improving prospects for a safe exit from lockdown of which our own suggestion is one example.
But the government must do far more now to protect people and businesses from the economic consequences of lockdown. And this is a case where the moral and economic imperatives coincide. Before the virus hit, while the economy was not booming, it was certainly not in freefall. Demand and supply were both undamaged.
It is inevitable that there will be some damage during such a profound contraction but the more the government can prevent that damage, the faster will be the rebound afterwards. There are some people who are afraid of this kind of government action on the grounds that it is ‘unaffordable’ – but as we explained here, that is simply not true.
In the words of John Maynard Keynes, “anything we can actually do, we can afford.”
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