Boris Johnson has failed to protect lives and the economy

Boris Johnson says he has chosen the middle way between saving lives and saving the economy: in reality we have experienced the worst of both worlds.
Picture downloaded from Wikimedia

The question of which countries have best managed the pandemic is the subject of frequent debate. The Worldometer website allows a comparison between countries, but the number of infection cases is not a meaningful term of comparison: there is just too much variation in relation to testing capacity and criteria. The number of Covid-19 deaths is, sadly, a better parameter.

However, the effectiveness of national governments in safeguarding the economy is equally important. The table below ranks a selection of countries in relation to their Covid-19 deaths (per 1 million population). The comparison with the data in the last column (projected real GDP change in 2020) is revealing. 

What the table suggests is that the choice we face is not between saving lives and saving livelihoods. Countries with fewer deaths have tended to suffer from a less severe recession. What seems to happen is that early effective measures do not just save more lives, they also avoid prolonged and more economically damaging restrictions. Furthermore, pandemics with high death rates would affect the economy even without restrictions.

Within the Scandinavian region, Sweden, which has been put forward as an example of non-restrictive coronavirus policies, has suffered from a much higher coronavirus mortality and no better economic outcomes than that of its neighbours with much lower mortality (Norway, Finland, Denmark).

Joe Hasell in a recent report (Which countries have protected both health and the economy in the pandemic?) also concludes that there is no evidence of a trade-off between lives and the economy. 

Emeline Han and colleagues have compared the experience across nine high income countries (The Lancet 24th September). They argue that public health response is important: in the UK neither the Test nor the Trace component of this response has been adequate. In the end, any Test and Trace system would fail when we allow infection numbers to soar.

Isolation of infected cases and quarantining of contacts is essential: in some Asian countries even mild infection cases have been isolated in hospital. We have self-isolation at home but, in the absence of effective checks and income protection, compliance seems to have been poor. 


Community engagement is essential to achieve compliance with social distancing. The UK face-mask recommendations have been both late and half-hearted. Our Prime Minister (PM) has done real damage with false promises like a return to normality by November and, the time when he urged workers to go back to the office, even if they could work effectively from home (a recommendation subsequently reversed). 

The PM’s refusal to dismiss Dominic Cummings after he had repeatedly broken the self-isolation rules, and the frequent policy turnarounds have dented public confidence. Our regulations are so complex and they change so frequently that many are confused. Not even the Prime Minister could recollect the correct details of the restrictions when interviewed. 

Allowing a return of all students to the university campuses has been a mistake as universities are now infection hotbeds. Most university courses could be delivered as distance learning with a much-reduced time-limited on-campus presence for essential practical sessions.

Despite the warning by the deputy chief medical officer that the situation is now similar to early March, Boris Johnson has adopted the same procrastination strategy that in March turned the UK into one of the countries with the largest numbers of deaths. The PM has ignored the advice by SAGE, on 21st September, that a two-week ‘circuit-breaker’ national lockdown was necessary. His new three-tier rearrangement of local lockdowns, announced on 12th October, is likely to be inadequate.

Boris Johnson’s failure to act decisively for a second time is due to a desire to appease a small group of Conservative MPs. Keir Starmer has described Boris Johnson as being “several steps behind the curve”. 

A report by IMF economists suggests that early stringent and short-lived lockdowns could be preferable to mild and prolonged measures in terms of both health and economic outcomes. We may end up with the worst of both worlds.

Covid-19 deaths and projected real GDP reduction in 2020. 17th October data from the Worldometer website (deaths) and the IMF website (GDP)

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