While ministers and their medical advisers refuse to be drawn on an exit strategy from the UK lockdown, discussions are under way in Whitehall to explore how a graduated return to work could soften the economic blow while avoiding an upsurge in deaths from the virus. What options are available?
Release the youth
Young workers are among the most resilient to the virus, but often the hardest hit financially. A “youth first” policy would aim to release them first, at least in part, so they can get back to work and soften the financial impact of the epidemic. Research from Warwick University this week made the case for easing restrictions on people in their 20s and 30s who no longer live with their parents. Andrew Oswald and Nattavudh Powdthavee estimate that the move would allow 4.2m people to return work, 2.6m of whom are in the private sector, and get the economy moving again. “A young workforce release of this kind would lead to substantial economic and societal benefits without enormous health costs to the country,” the authors write.
As recent deaths have shown, however, the young are not impervious to the disease. The Warwick group calculate that their youth-first policy could lead to 630 premature deaths. But if all goes well, others could follow them back to the workplace, their order determined by age and type of work.
Shutting schools reduces the spread of coronavirus among pupils and teachers breaking up the social bonds that inevitably build up between parents. But it has a significant impact on economic activity, as so many working parents need time off for childcare and home schooling.
An influential review published this week found a “remarkable dearth” of data on the value of school closures during the outbreaks of Sars and Mers, but noted that the measure seemed to have relatively little impact on the spread of those coronaviruses.
More sophisticated options are available than simply reopening schools en masse, which would risk fuelling a second wave of infections. A more cautious approach may see schools staggering their opening hours, lunch and break times, keeping playgrounds closed and class groups constant, introducing more space between students and having a shorter school week.
There is a case for opening primary schools first: they tend to be smaller than secondaries and it is predominantly younger children who keep adults from working. That said, the impact of closures on mental health and education are more severe for secondary students.
“One problem is that we don’t have much information to guide us,” said Professor Russell Vine at UCL, an author of the review. “We need to get the clever modellers looking at this, and looking at how these might interact with other elements. But I think society also need to discuss it.”
Britain desperately wants an effective antibody test that reveals who has had the virus. Those who test positive for coronavirus antibodies will presumably have some immunity and in principle might be allowed back to work. It could make a dramatic difference for NHS staff and other carers who work with vulnerable people.
Immunity passports are not straightforward, though. A positive antibody test does not mean someone is well protected, or protected for long. What the immune response means in the case of this particular disease is still unknown. Another concern with immunity passports is that they blur the rules of the lockdown and encourage others to take the restrictions less seriously.
A gradual easing of restrictions on shops and businesses would help the economy, but the spectre of a second wave of infections is ever present. Certain types of shops could reopen, but with strict limits on hours and numbers. The construction and manufacturing industries have already been sent new guidance from Alok Sharma, the business secretary, who said work could continue if done in line with social distancing rules “wherever possible”.
Health officials will be watching European countries that are stating to relax their own lockdowns. In Austria, where new cases have been falling for some days, the schools will remain closed, but small shops, DIY and garden centres are due to reopen after Easter.