Covid-19 continues to dominate the headlines. The human consequences of the virus on individuals, families, and communities right across the UK is clear to see – in our health, our relationships, and our livelihoods. We must not forget that many families will be dreading the festive season without loved ones who have passed away during the pandemic.
But as politicians, health experts, economists, business leaders, and the public continue to debate what the rules should be around Christmas, we must also remember that the impacts of the pandemic go beyond the here and now. There are long-term implications for the nation’s health, economy, and wellbeing that we will be dealing with for many years to come. This is why it’s so important that we think carefully about the choices we are making in managing this dreadful virus.
While the rollout of the vaccine has begun, it will take many, many months for the population to achieve the level of immunity required for life to return to normal. Until then, it is vital that we have a consistent and transparent decision-making process and mature conversations about the balance between personal, societal, and governmental responsibility.
Policymakers constantly have to make difficult choices, but this year has been perhaps harder than most. The Government has had to decide how to balance the terrible consequences of lost lives in both the short- and long-term with wider damage to the livelihoods and wellbeing of the population, and has had to consider whether to introduce enforceable legislation or rely on guidance and public communication campaigns to drive behaviour change.
The Government has said that its approach is to continually review the evidence and seek the best health, scientific, and economic advice in order to pursue the best overall outcomes. We applaud this sentiment. However, delivering on it requires an in-depth and detailed analysis of the impacts on health, society, and the economy, so the various trade-offs required can be understood. It requires a holistic assessment of the likely consequences of different policy options, and a model that can factor in and respond to the inherent uncertainty of a pandemic.
There is currently no public evidence that such a tool exists and is being used by Government. This has left policymakers facing the unenviable task of weighing up many conflicting issues. But more concerningly, it has left the public feeling confused and uncertain. Our recent UK Prosperity Case Study revealed that, even before the coronavirus struck, public confidence in national government had been deteriorating and was among the lowest levels seen across the world. This is deeply concerning as good governance and decisive and effective leadership will be crucial to guide the UK through the pandemic and create a more prosperous society in the future.
The good news is that the Legatum Institute has this week published a methodology for a holistic impact assessment for Covid-19 policy choices, and demonstrated its application with a retrospective analysis of the 31st October decision to introduce the English national lockdown.
The assessment framework accounts for the direct and indirect physical and mental health effects, economic effects, education effects, and wider impacts of both the virus itself and people’s responses to it (whether through personal choice or enforced behaviour change). Based on publicly-available data and using the Treasury’s standard conversion factors, it evaluates both short and long-term impacts, and presents results in a way that allows the impacts across these different areas to be considered together.
We do not claim that our framework is a definitive judgment on whether the decisions taken since the start of the pandemic have been the right ones, nor can it provide the answers for the difficult decisions that will come next. But it does show that it is possible to deliver this sort of analysis, that it is possible to consider the wide range of impacts of different policy choices in a holistic and consistent way.
Our report shows how to assess the impact of Government action to limit the short-term deaths from the virus so far (which has undeniably reduced the number of people dying as a result of the virus), and compare it with the costs of this action – restrictions on mobility, work, and hospitality that have reduced people’s incomes and lowered employment, as well as the cancelled medical procedures, the social isolation that has led to a deterioration in mental health for many, and the likely long-term mortality impacts associated with economic crises and recessions.
The report also demonstrates the importance of differentiating the question of what level of mobility and mixing will lead to the lowest overall negative impact from the question of how to achieve that desired level – for instance using public information, guidance, or regulation. It also shows the necessity of conducting impact assessments at a local level, as the difference in underlying infection rates, demography, and employment patterns across the country mean that the appropriate level of mobility and mixing will be different in different areas.
We hope that the Government will urgently adopt and develop our proof of concept and use it to inform future policymaking with regards to Covid-19. Such an approach will provide invaluable information to policymakers as they consider what the rules should be as we move into Christmas and the New Year and how different areas can move into different tiers or out of restrictions altogether. This will put Government policymaking on a stronger footing and make it more likely that it can achieve the best overall outcomes for the UK.
But it will also provide a vital framework through which politicians can communicate with the public, allowing deeper and more honest conversations about the choices the country has already faced this year and will face in 2021. By sharing the evidence behind their decisions and being transparent about the choices being made, the Government can re-build public trust and allow the British people to do what they do best – make personal decisions that care for their families, communities, and country