The Economy vs Public Health: Can a balance be achieved? 

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Following the news from the Office for National Statistics that the UK’s economy shrank by 20.4% in the first full month of lockdown, April, the government has announced that bars, restaurants and theatres can reopen with some form of social distancing. However, some scientists, including Sir David King, former chief scientific advisor to the government, have claimed that reopening these sectors, while boosting the economy, would increase the rate of infection with the infamous R rate only just staying below one. The government now faces a dilemmaopen the economy further, risking a second spike, or keep the economy largely shut, jeopardising business’ and some employees’ futures but also ensuring the R rate does not creep above one.  

When the lockdown was first announced on the 23rd March, most people were accepting of the terms, understanding that it was necessary to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed. However, as time has gone on and lives continue to remain on hold, calls for the economy to be reopened have become louder, and the government is now being forced to listen. Even if the furlough scheme introduced by the inexperienced Chancellor Rishi Sunak has been so far effective in preventing mass unemployment in UK – the US’ has been far less effective, with unemployment rates reaching forty million – the scheme cannot continue forever. Despite Neo-Marxist economists’ bullish attitude towards budget deficits, it would be reckless for the furlough scheme to continue beyond October. Therefore, it is key the economy rapidly bounces back from its sharp contraction as it reopens; anything else would surely lead to a long recession.  

Whilst pandemics are a significant health problem, so are recessions, with suicides and poverty often increasing in economic downturns. Whilst you cannot put a price on life, the economy is needed to sustain livelihoods and reduce poverty, which is both a larger and more consistent killer than Covid-19. The economic growth of the last fifty years, especially in countries like India and China which have more fully embraced Capitalism, has led to poverty levels decreasing from 50% to 20%. Simultaneously, life expectancy has increased to its highest levels and diseases, including polio, have been eradicated. Economic growth is vital in improving and sustaining lives and suppressing it until there is a vaccine, which could still be years away, is foolish. Following the 2008 financial crash, suicidies of workingclass men increased by 3.3% and poverty increased leading to more unhealthy lifestyles. Hence, the health problems caused by the looming recession must be taken seriously as economic crises will likely damage our NHS far more than the current crisis.  

Yet it must also be considered that a second peak, which scientists fear will arise from loosened restrictions, will only result in another economic shutdown. If the entire summer season is wiped out, as is a possibility given reducing the two-meter rule could increase the chances of transmission tenfold, then this will surely provide the coup de grâce for the British tourism industry 

This all begs the question, is there a compromise? Can there really be a way in which we reopen the economy while ensuring social distancing can take place? Well, given the recent policies employed by the government, they seem to be aiming to do just that. Johnson has announced the reduction of the social distancing rule to one metre plus, whilst also emphasising the need to wear a face mask and the ‘world-beating’ test and trace system which will help in containing local outbreaks. Of course, large gatherings of thousands of people will still be unlikely to take place any time soon, such as sports games or concerts, but there seems to be no reason as to why restaurants, pubs and cinemas cannot reopen. These sectors can easily manage social distancing measures and are vital in keeping the UK’s economy healthy. The government has also been very adamant that the loosening of restrictions is only conditional and can be reversed if need be, thus encouraging businesses to follow restrictions in fear they might have to close up again. 

Evidently, the announcement that the UK’s service sector can get under way again after a long four months will be a relief for many business owners and employees who have been under tremendous stress worrying about keeping their businesses and jobs over this period.  However, this is by no means a “return to normal”. Restrictions mean businesses’ profits will remain suppressed and, of course, any potential second-wave will only result in a quick reversion to the strict lockdown so deadly to our economy.