Uncertainty about the progression of the Covid-19 pandemic makes it impossible to make “meaningful” predictions about the economic impacts of new restrictions being imposed on Wednesday, the government has said.
An analysis released by Boris Johnson in response to threats of rebellion from backbench Tory MPs acknowledged that controls have “major impacts” on the economy and public finances, but insisted that the alternative of allowing the disease to growing exponentially would be “much worse”.
And it stated that the prospect of the NHS being overwhelmed by coronavirus patients because of a failure to keep the reproduction rate - known as R - below 1 would be “intolerable”.
Tory MPs who have demanded clarity on the predicted economic fallout on areas in each of the three new tiers of restrictions are likely to be disappointed by the new document, published a day ahead of a crucial House of Commons vote.
Rather than giving specific details of the expected impact on each tier, the document states: “Any attempt to estimate the specific economic impacts of precise changes to individual restrictions for a defined period of time would be subject to such wide uncertainty as to not be meaningful for precise policy making.”
A threatened rebellion by 50 or more Conservative MPs could leave Mr Johnson dependent on Labour votes to get his plan through the Commons on Tuesday. Sir Keir Starmer is yet to confirm which way Labour MPs will vote, though he said today that they will be guided by “the national interest”.
Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs, said he was “disappointed” the assessment arrived with so little time to spare before the key vote.
The former chief whip said: “We are, after all, talking about imposing some of the most severe restrictions on our constituents and the way they lead their lives and run their businesses.
“This information is what ministers should have been insisting on before they made their decisions, so it surely could have been made available earlier.”
He said the CRG would “analyse this data tonight and report back on our findings later tomorrow”.
The document pointed to the Office for Budget Responsibility’s central forecast, released last week, of unemployment surging to 7.5 per cent and a permanent hit of 3 per cent to GDP as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak.
It noted that this forecast assumes that the average level of restrictions in the UK are equivalent to England’s pre-lockdown tier 3, and said that harsher measures are likely to result in larger associated short-term economic costs and vice versa.
The document said the alternative of allowing Covid-19 to grow exponentially “is much worse for public health” and stressed the importance of keeping the R number – the reproduction rate of the virus – below 1.
“At the outset of the most difficult time of year for the NHS, and with hospital admissions already high, a sustained period with R above 1 would result in hospitals rapidly becoming overwhelmed,” it warned.
“This could lead to many more Covid-19 and non-Covid-19 deaths that would have been preventable were the NHS to remain within its bed capacity.
“Cancellations to non-emergency and elective care would also result in loss of lives and years of healthy life.”
The government’s view is that the “severe loss of life and other health impacts” would be “intolerable for our society”.