Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 16 June 2020

What lockdowns do and what they don’t do

Just a short post to advertise my Guardian article ‘Fear of coronavirus, not lockdown, is the biggest threat to the UK's economy’. The key point I make is that the economy would suffer badly even if there was no lockdown. People, once they realised the extent of the threat, would stay at home. The three reasons I give for imposing a lockdown are classic reasons in economics for state intervention.

  1. The state has an information advantage

    The government, because it talks directly to top scientists, can see the pandemic coming a lot faster than the majority of people. That didn’t work out too well in the UK, where people were leading the government, but if the state functioned well this would be true.

  2. The state deals with externalities

    While the majority of people would stay at home in a pandemic, many others might take risks. Whether the state should allow individuals that freedom is an interesting question, but that is not the point here. Because risky individuals can interact with others who are rightly being cautious, they create an externality which a lockdown avoids.

  3. The state supports individuals in a recession

    There is a classic Keynesian role here. In this case it goes further, because it allows people to stay at home who might otherwise feel compelled to work and endanger themselves and others.

A benign government would lockdown quickly and hard, and get new infections down to a sufficiently low level such that the vast majority of people feel comfortable resuming their social consumption. It would have a local and well trained track, trace and isolate regime (TTI) in place to deal with any new flare-ups once lockdown was lifted. That would enable lockdown to be lifted once daily new infections were low.

That optimal strategy leads to a short sharp economic downturn, but an equally swift recovery that should be V shaped. The UK has departed from this optimal strategy in almost every respect. It delayed the lockdown, which automatically means that the lockdown is going to have to last longer. It failed to deal with externalities by not properly protecting health and care workers. It farmed TTI out to an inexperienced private contractor, so the TTI infrastructure will not be fully operational until September/October! It is chipping away at the lockdown before new infections are low enough, which raises R and prolongs the lockdown. The result is more deaths, but also a bigger and more prolonged recession, and a slower recovery.

My article came out at the wrong time, with the media full of pictures of lines of people waiting to shop. And I could be wrong. Maybe there is enough pent-up consumption and risk taking out there to keep not just shops but pubs and restaurants and other parts of social consumption going. Maybe the government will be lucky, and infections will continue to gradually fall despite its easing of lockdown. But given the pretty big risk that I am right, no responsible government should follow the current governments path. We don't want a government to gamble with our lives and our economy.

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