Targeting COVID-19 control measures to optimise economic output while protecting schools, universities and the NHS could benefit UK economy by £193bn.
A new report, from the Imperial College London COVID-19 Response Team in a collaboration between epidemiologists and economists, found that strategically closing higher-risk economic sectors for two-month periods until March 2021, while allowing dozens of other economic sectors to continue, would enable schools and universities to remain open and keep hospitalisations within capacity.
“Shutting down any sector should not be taken lightly, given the profound social and economic consequences." Dr David Haw Study co-author
They estimate that this would increase Gross Domestic Product (GDP - a value for all goods and services produced within a country) over six months by an estimated £193 billion (28.8%) compared with a blanket lockdown.
With governments around the world trying to balance economic output against public health in the recent months, the researchers modelled different combinations of closing 63 economic sectors to find which scenario would maximise GDP without letting the pandemic get out of control forcing schools to close and hospitals becoming overwhelmed.
When modelling the potential impact the researchers considered economic sectors with high contact rates and many workers, resulting in high virus transmission, interconnected supply chains, and sectors’ contribution to GDP, while minimising loss in GDP, given different levels of hospital occupancy.
They calculated that a blanket lockdown that maintains only essential services across all 63 economic sectors would allow the education sector to stay open. This might generate an estimated £670 billion in GDP over six months.
The researchers then modelled three scenarios that would enable schools and universities to remain open while increasing GDP over the next six months:
- With hospital capacity for the treatment of 12,000 COVID patients, partially closing 14 economic sectors for a set time while opening others might result in an estimated GDP of £833 billion, a gain of £163bn (24.3%) over blanket lockdown.
- Allowing no more hospital beds to be occupied by COVID-19 patients than were occupied at the height of the first wave in April 2020 (18,000 patients), partially closing eight economic sectors for a set time while opening others might result in an estimated GDP of £863bn, a gain of £193bn (28.8%).
- Capping COVID-19 hospital capacity at 24,000 patients (which would require more hospital beds than were available during the first wave in the UK in April 2020), closing five economic sectors for a set time while opening others will result in an estimated GDP of £875bn, a gain of £205bn (30.6%).
Exploring the balance between the economy and public health, the report includes scenarios with stringent closures for retail, accommodation, food services, as well as the creative arts, entertainment, sports activities, amusement, recreation and personal services, while keeping economic sectors including manufacturing, construction, agriculture and financial services open. This scenario will impact GDP least and prevent transmissions most.
The researchers estimate that a scenario with a fully open economy (with non-pharmaceutical interventions such as social distancing but no sectoral closures) will result in an estimated GDP of up to £889 billion over six months, but hospitals would exceed capacity with around 68,000 COVID-19 patients requiring hospital treatment at the peak in January 2021 (compared to 18,000 covid-19 patients requiring treatment in April 2020, more than 3 times the number of COVID-19 patients).
The scenario’s presented in the report rely on the assumption that other non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as social distancing, testing, self-isolation, mask wearing and handwashing are stringent. The recommended priority list of sectors to keep open and close proved robust to extensive sensitivity analyses.
Understanding the links between economic sectors and virus spread
The work is presented in the latest report from the WHO Collaborating Centre for Infectious Disease Modelling within the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, Jameel Institute (J-IDEA), Imperial College London.
Professor Peter Smith, from Imperial College Business School, said: “Policymakers face an agonising choice when trying to maximise economic activity, whilst keeping schools and universities functioning and preventing hospital services from being overwhelmed. This research offers a tool developed by epidemiologists and economists to help address that difficult balancing act."
Dr Katharina Hauck, from Imperial's School of Public Health, said: “A blanket lockdown is a crude policy tool that is very effective in reducing infections, but it comes at high social and economic costs. Our study shows how we can fine-tune closures of the economy, and save both lives and livelihoods over the coming months."
Dr David Haw, from Imperial's School of Public Health, said: “Shutting down any sector should not be taken lightly, given the profound social and economic consequences. This study aims to help understand in more depth the relationship between different sectors of the economy, the spread of coronavirus and the consequences for hospital capacity."
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Dr Sabine L. van Elsland
School of Public Health