Grim new UK data will make easing the lockdown a tough sell

I know how it feels.
I know how it feels.
Image: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/Handout via REUTERS
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The UK entered a general lockdown on March 23, behind most European countries. The government is now determining what measures should remain in place, with an announcement by prime minister Boris Johnson due May 10 at 7pm local time.

The decision comes amid a difficult backdrop. The UK this week overtook Italy to become the European country with the highest number of Covid-19 deaths, which is now above 30,000. Globally, only the US has a higher number of deaths—more than 75,000—but its population of 330 million makes it five times the size of the UK.

Comparing statistics between countries should be met with some caution, in part over demographic differences (the UK is larger than Italy, for instance, but Italy has an older population) and how deaths are recorded. Still, the UK remains one of the hardest hit countries, and data from the Office for National Statistics suggests Covid-19 deaths are higher than official tallies.

Despite these public health issues, the government is factoring in economic concerns when choosing the best course of action. And yesterday, the same day a formal review of the lockdown was due, the Bank of England warned the UK was on track for a recession. It said GDP could shrink 14% (pdf) this year, the worst contraction since the 18th century.

Though many businesses say ongoing physical distancing will prevent a substantial recovery, the cost of maintaining it appears to be lower. New research from the US Federal Reserve and MIT found that, when looking at the 1918 Spanish Flu, places that took “early and extensive” measures saw their economies do better in the long run.

Indeed, the BoE’s own estimates show the UK economy rebounding down the road, assuming there is no major second wave of infections after the lockdown eases. The Bank estimates overall GDP will return to pre-pandemic levels in mid-2021, growing 15% that year.

These factors, along with Johnson’s recent recovery from Covid-19 after being admitted to intensive care, should provide him with some political cover if few changes to the lockdown are announced on Sunday. It also probably doesn’t hurt that Brits appear to already be largely supportive of it.

Today, culture secretary Oliver Dowden told the BBC that the public “should not expect big changes” to the restrictions. The government is expected to keep schools closed and encourage office workers to continue to do their jobs from home if possible. More significantly, it might abandon its “stay home” messaging—to allow for more time outdoors as long as people obey physical distancing guidelines.

But Johnson also reportedly gave some government officials the impression that more substantive changes are coming. The prime minister is not exactly known for being a steady hand—we’ll know soon enough either way.