Why a lockdown for just the over-50s wouldn't work

The middle-aged and elderly are central to our social lives and our country's economic health.

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One of the ideas in circulation about how to “get out of lockdown” is that the lockdown would be eased for the young – who for our purposes I’m defining as everyone under the age of 50, who are at a significantly lower risk of dying from coronavirus. While the young do get Covid-19, and in some cases severely, they don’t, as it stands, get it in sufficient numbers to knacker British healthcare capacity. 

On of the major risk factors of the disease is not just the people it kills, but the people who die for want of healthcare services that they would otherwise receive. The benefit of this is it would allow us to “boost the economy” instead of suffering from the shock caused by the lockdown.

The problem with this argument is that it is based on an unsound premise. There isn’t this weird abstract called “the economy” that exists independently of the social connections we value and sustain us. There is no such thing as the economy: there are men and there are women and there are families, the things they like to enjoy together and the economic value their labour capacity creates along the way.

When you and your granny get together and she opens her drink cabinet, that is stimulating the economy. When your mother takes your two-year-old son out for the day so you and your partner can go and watch a film for grown-ups and have a dinner in a quiet restaurant, that is stimulating the economy. When your great-aunt and her book club get together for supper at one of their houses and to discuss why they disliked the novel they bought that month, that is stimulating the economy.

Yes, more importantly, those are also the small beautiful events that make life worth living for most people. The idea you can simply cut out the over-50s from our economy and have something that looks like peak economic performance just reflects a deep and fundamental lack of understanding of the centrality of the over-50s: to the individual lives of a great number of people under 50 in this country, but also to the overall health of the economy.  The over-50s spend more in every category other than clothing and footwear than the under-50s.

You can ease some of the real social pressures on the under-50s with an age-limited lockdown, but an age-capped lockdown means effectively, a recessional economy in perpetuity. You cannot “save the economy” without helping the elderly. It also makes it much, much harder to achieve the one way (without palliative treatments or a vaccine) that allows you to let everyone out of lockdown, which is to reduce community transmission to the point you can test, track and isolate new cases.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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