Sunday 29 March 2020 9:40 pm

Extending the lockdown could have deadly consequences

A week into what began as a three-week lockdown, the goalposts have been moved.

Government ministers and health officials spent the weekend recalibrating expectations, making it clear that people must be prepared for these unprecedented measures to last into June, perhaps longer.

The message from the government is that the measures cannot be lifted until the threat to life has passed. This is a noble goal, but the suggestion appears to be that this is a consequence-free policy: more time in lockdown means more lives saved, and is therefore without question the right thing to do.

The reality is, tragically, more complex.

For a start, as the chief medical officer noted when softer social distancing measures started to be introduced, the rules themselves may lead directly to avoidable deaths. Already, thousands of operations have been postponed. These delays may not cause immediate loss of life, but the long-term impact of denying people medical care for other conditions is no less real than the effects of coronavirus, for all that it might be less visible.

Then there are the health emergencies that are being missed: the appointments cancelled, the cancers going undiagnosed, the life-saving surgeries that are not happening because people are not seeing their doctors. Again, these may not be counted as Covid-19 deaths, and the shortening of lifespans because conditions were not caught early is hard to measure, but their impact is real.

More widely, although it may sound cold to try to compare the cost of businesses going under and jobs being lost with a human death, the two are inextricably linked. Coronavirus can kill in ways that go far beyond the lack of ventilators. 

Indeed, the cost to the economy cannot be separated from the cost to public health.

People who are financially unstable have statistically lower life expectancies. Long-term unemployment is correlated with alcoholism and depression. Children in low-income families face far more precarious futures. Family breakdown — the rise of which is an inevitable consequence of both mass unemployment and trapping people in their homes —has an economic and social cost. So does widespread mental health deterioration.

The government has promised to do whatever it takes to stop the economy collapsing and support people whose income has suffered. But it cannot do so forever, nor for everyone. The existing package of support is both unsustainably generous (we will be paying off the debt for many generations to come), and insufficient. 

For it is not just pubs and restaurants being hit by these measures — it is virtually every sector. Retail, tourism and entertainment might have been the first victims, but keep these measures in place longer than a few weeks, and the list is endless: the arts, real estate, manufacturing, construction, education, marketing, consultancy, and media. Keep the economy on lockdown for months, and even sectors which could weather a brief crisis, like financial services and law — will start to suffer.

Can the government prop up every business? Is it prepared to put millions of additional claimants on Universal Credit? For how long? Already we have seen extraordinary fiscal and monetary measures to stabilise the economy. As more businesses collapse under the pressure of lockdown, the need for support will grow at an exponential rate, perhaps higher than that of the virus itself.

None of this is to suggest that the government should be blasé about relaxing rules. It is vital to give the health service all the time and resources possible to respond to the peak. But lockdowns cannot be extended indefinitely. The consequences are too great. 

Right now, the message from Downing Street is that any amount of economic damage is worth it to save more lives. But while we may not know the death toll from the lockdown itself for many years to come, those invisible future casualties must be recognised too.

The government has some agonising decisions to make. Extending the lockdown into June may seem the obvious choice, but the cure could prove worse than the disease itself.

Main image credit: Getty

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