2020’s Million-Dollar Question: When should the country reopen?

June 25, 2020

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3 min read

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What's going on here?

Scientists are urging European countries like the UK and Italy against easing lockdown measures amidst rising coronavirus cases.

What does this mean?

Coronavirus-induced lockdown measures have triggered a record peacetime downturn, with the European Commission forecasting a 7.7% EU economy contraction in 2020, and an 8.3% shrink in the UK. This has placed pressure on European governments to restart their economies. In the UK, the government has begun to ease restrictions. Schools will partially reopen, with an estimated 40% to 70% attendance in the first week alone. Groups of up to 6 people from different households are now allowed to convene in private outdoor settings, and outdoor markets are set to reopen, in line with appropriate social distancing measures. More non-essential shops are permitted to reopen from June 15, and the Premier League will return from 17 June.

Unsurprisingly, scientists have cautioned against the premature easing of lockdown measures amidst rising coronavirus cases. As of 5 June, the John Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard reports that five of the ten countries with the highest confirmed coronavirus cases are from the EU, with the UK leading the pack in 4th place (283,079 cases). What’s more startling is that the UK has reported the 2nd highest deaths in the world (39,987 deaths), behind the US (108,211 deaths).

What's the big picture effect?

Despite popular belief, the UK government is not obligated to listen to scientists. Medical and scientific advice is primarily communicated to the government via Professor Chris Whitty, the UK government’s chief medical adviser. He works alongside Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser. But they are “advisers” – they can only tell elected politicians what the science suggests, and cannot represent the people’s or government’s view.

Even with the public health and safety concerns against reopening, there are competing economic considerations that argue otherwise. With the economy predicted to shrink by 8.3%, a figure almost 2 times the 4.25% contraction during the 2008 crisis and lower than any other contraction since 1961, the government must mitigate economic damage by resuming business activity as soon as possible. Additionally, the ongoing Brexit process means that the UK cannot rely on the Eurozone’s financial backing.  

The UK government must, therefore, strike a fair balance between economic and health and safety concerns. The balance, however, is not always clear. For example, Dr Patrick Roach, General Secretary for the UK Teachers’ Union, has commented that Boris Johnson’s decision to reopen schools was “at odds with scientific evidence… and deep concerns expressed by schools, teachers, and parents”. However, in a similar case, Welsh Education Minister Kirsty Williams gave a contrasting opinion. She argued that opening schools later in August would have involved “a complete structural change to the school year”. This highlights yet another significant obstacle to extending lockdown measures – the practicality of delaying essential activities such as education, trade, and business. 

So far, the government has delayed these activities by ensuring the economic wellbeing of individuals and businesses through mortgage relief schemes and business support grants. Businesses have adapted by altering their business operations or by securing additional funds from investors. However, the economy must be fully functional before this cash flow dries out. After all, there are only so many online yoga courses Lululemon can provide before its clients stop spending!

Overall, the UK government is situated in a precarious position and must make decisions based on the speculated balance between economic interests, health and safety concerns, and practicality. Reopen too early, and a potential second wave of infections would extend the economic lockdown in the UK, risk a severe recession, and further damage the health and safety of citizens. Reopen too late, and more economic damage than necessary would result.

Report written by Matthew Poon

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