The decision to lock down the UK to slow the spread of Covid-19 was undoubtedly the right one to save lives in the short term. However, this strategy carries an enormous cost.
Rishi Sunak‘s Job Retention Scheme to pay the wages of furloughed staff for three months could now cost up to £40bn – and that is just the tip of the iceberg.
The UK lockdown is causing severe damage to unemployment rates, future salaries and levels of national debt. The UK is hurtling towards an extraordinary recession that will potentially cost many lives. Unless a vaccine is discovered quickly, there is no pain-free way forward. Sooner, rather than later, we need an exit strategy that balances epidemiology and the economy to minimise all the risks.
One approach would be a staggered release, starting with 20- to 30-year-olds.
There would be many advantages to such a strategy. These young adults are, statistically speaking, less likely to suffer severe symptoms as a result of Covid-19, making them the safest among us. At the same time, they are more likely to be the hardest hit by the economic consequences of a prolonged lockdown and face a future paying off the country’s enormous debts. Evidence also suggests that they are more likely to grow restless as the lockdown drags on and defy the restrictions, potentially sparking a domino effect that puts many thousands more people at risk.
Allowing these young adults to resume their lives, largely unrestricted, raises obvious concerns that they might infect their parents and other more vulnerable members of society. Therefore, only those who do not live with older citizens could be released. Even so, this would allow 4.2 million people to return to work, forming a mini-economy run by, and for, the young.
Data we harvested from the Annual Population Survey reveals that approximately 2.6 million of those are employed in the private sector. They would be more likely to lose their jobs if the lockdown continued, but would help to stimulate the economy if allowed to resume work. Given that the average weekly income for workers in this age group is £386.28, preventing half of them losing their jobs would bolster the economy by £13bn a year.
There is no reason why only the young should benefit. Many older, more experienced staff could continue to work from the safety of their own homes, providing mentoring and managerial support to their younger colleagues using Zoom, Skype, or Facetime.
Such a strategy is not without risk, of course. There would still be those who tragically lose their lives as a result. The estimated fatality rate for coronavirus patients aged 20-29 is 0.03 per cent, while twice that number need critical care. Based on those figures, lifting the lockdown on young adults might result in an additional 630 premature deaths and create significant pressure on the NHS. However, the effects would be far smaller than releasing the wider population.
Another challenge would be enforcing the new restrictions to ensure only those aged under 30 left their home amid likely resentment from other age groups. The police would need powers to stop and fine older adults who breached the lockdown. However, such draconian measures are already in place in the UK and many other countries.
Politicians would have to explain to the rest of the population the logic behind releasing young adults first, offering them hope that this staggered approach would help them regain their own freedom. This could be accelerated by antibody testing to identify those who have developed an immunity to the disease and are safe to be released.
In this way UK society and the economy might begin to move forward in the footsteps of the young, setting an example for other countries to follow.
Nick Powdthavee is professor of behavioural economics at Warwick Business School and the author of ‘The Happiness Equation: The Surprising Economics of Our Most Valuable Asset’