When can lockdown end, and how do we get out of it? An economist, behavioural scientist and epidemiologist have their say

Behavioural scientist

Prof. Pete Lunn, Head of Behavioural Research Unit, ESRI Department of Economics, Trinity College Dublin

From the perspective of human behaviour, our situation is unprecedented in modern times. To understand what might happen next, as a behavioural scientist, I recommend first pausing to consider how we got here. A month ago, I regarded the phrase “global community” as fanciful, perhaps even oxymoronic. Yet the response to the coronavirus pandemic may be the most extensive global collective action undertaken by human beings in our history. In entering global lockdown, billions of people have sacrificed liberty, company and participation in wider society, all for the greater good. While extraordinary to behold, this behaviour is not entirely surprising. In times of crisis, this is what humans do. They pull together and strive for common goals, albeit with a bit of fraying at the edges.

For decades, behavioural scientists have studied how individuals make sacrifices for common goals. Two crucial success factors are the desirability of the goal and whether everyone can see clearly how their behaviour leads to it. Thus far, the first factor has been straightforward. Random and potentially lethal infection is frightening and reducing it highly desirable. The second factor, meanwhile, has been ensured by a massive global public health campaign. So what do these two insights tell us about what happens next?

While sensitivity to fear may decline somewhat, it will remain pretty strong. It is the second factor, the clear link from behaviour to collective goal, that is troublesome. For at some point, the epidemiologists will advise that restrictions can be partially lifted. Some workplaces will re-open, some gatherings will be allowed. It may be a crucial moment. As the crisis deepened, the logic that tighter restrictions on social activity would slow infection was easy to follow and daily increases in infections and deaths provided clear feedback. But can we reach similar collective understanding of how it is fine to relax some restrictions yet vital to keep others? Once infection is declining, what is the common goal?

Epidemiologists, behavioural scientists and politicians will need to work together to articulate why some behaviours are fine but others not, and how this is best for all. Feedback on progress towards a collective goal is vital. One possibility is to relax restrictions in small steps, making each conditional on infections continuing to fall.

Extraordinary global solidarity has characterised our initial response to this crisis. Getting out of it will require more subtle, but equally strong, collective action. 


Eric Brunner, professor of social and biological epidemiology, at UCL

Lockdown exit (‘Lexit’) will not be a single event. Our collective yearning for an end-date will only grow, but as the terrible Covid-19 misery grinds on we must, as Goya warned, not let reason sleep. We will learn by observing epidemic trajectories in other countries as their policies change, but we will need to monitor carefully what happens in the UK before and after cautious relaxation of social distancing rules, when the decision is made.

Testing will inform our responses. We must be prepared for anything, from a waning epidemic to a return to full lockdown. Meaningful Lexit must wait for a vaccine, and everyone must have it, unless clearly contraindicated. Vaccine hesitancy is a luxury we can no longer afford. Between now and then, testing for active disease and antibody-based immunity is clearly a priority. A fundamental principle in epidemiology, the scientific foundation of public health policy, is accurate measurement of health status.  

Without measuring the rate of Covid-19 infection, reliably, in the population, over the coming weeks and months, evidence-based policy development will be impossible. The epidemic has been poorly monitored up to now and this scandal must stop. We need a programme of rolling, representative surveys to capture the pattern of spread of Covid-19 in the UK, and how it changes. Age, sex, socioeconomic position, ethnicity and national region are vitally important variables. They are all underlying determinants of severe disease and death, and the evolution of the epidemic.

The proportion of asymptomatic Sars-CoV-2 – the virus that causes Covid-19 – carriers in the population and the duration of immunity after infection are two major known unknowns at present. Both are critical for prospects of Lexit. Social solidarity, thankfully, is being expressed in myriad ways during the lockdown. Participating in Covid-19 surveys and research is a vital contribution to the social good.


Julian Jessop, economist

It is right to balance the benefits of saving lives which might be lost to Covid-19 against the costs of shutting down large parts of the economy. But this trade-off is still firmly in favour of maintaining the emergency measures for as long as the health experts think is necessary to get on top of the virus. Even a very large fall in GDP, lasting many months, would be a fair price to pay.

There are also three reasons for optimism. First, this approach is supported by the lessons from history. For example, studies of how different US cities responded to the ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic in 1918 found that those who intervened earlier and more aggressively recovered more quickly.

Second, there are encouraging precedents elsewhere today. China has started to lift some of its restrictions and the economy there is now gradually returning to normal, albeit slowly. Admittedly, much of China’s data is suspect. But similar improvements are being seen in other Asian economies which are also further down the road than the UK, notably South Korea and Taiwan (thanks to relatively effective testing and contact tracing).

The third factor is the basic economics. Activity has fallen sharply because the UK government itself has slammed on the brakes. The exit strategy is therefore simple: gradually remove the restrictions as evidence grows that each has achieved its objectives.

In the meantime, economic policy is doing the right things: protect businesses, jobs and incomes, so that the economy can quickly reboot. But the government should not hesitate to spend more if needed. With interest rates so low, and lower than future inflation, the real cost of borrowing is actually negative. The burden of debt will therefore be shared with the holders of UK government bonds, who don’t seem to mind at all.

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