April was the cruellest month but recovery depends on trade-offs between the economy and health

  • Video report by ITV News Business and Economics Editor Joel Hills

We have never seen anything like this.

In April the economy contracted on a scale and at a pace that is without precedent.

In the 20 years leading up to lockdown, month on month growth has averaged 0.2%. Last month it shrank by 20.4%. That’s some reverse gear.

In April the economy was around 25.2% smaller than it was in February.

Every sector of the economy has been impacted, some areas far worse than others. It will come as no surprise to see how airlines, pubs, restaurants and hotels have seen their sales collapse, or how car production has grounded almost to a halt.

The numbers the Office for National Statistics (ONS)have produced may not prove entirely reliable.

All sectors of the economy were negatively affected but some worse than others. Credit: ONS

"First-estimates" of GDP are always subject to revisions and the current situation is so extraordinary - many businesses are still closed, survey response rates are lower - that the margin of error is higher than normal.

But the big picture is clear.

The recession we are experiencing is terrible, worse than the Financial Crisis and worse than the Great Depression. It is causing extreme hardship and will have devastating, lasting consequences.

  • ITV News Business and Economics Editor Joel Hills explains impact of GDP fall figures

The downturn is man-made. The collapse in output has been caused by lockdown restrictions not illness.

The economic impact of the measures imposed to contain the the spread of coronavirus is being felt by everyone, but it is not being felt equally. Some households find themselves better off, others are suffering privations.

Crudely put, the restrictions are protecting the lives of the elderly while damaging the livelihoods of the young and the low paid. The former are the most vulnerable to the disease, the latter disproportionately work in the sectors of the economy which have been hardest hit.

The recession has already been four times deeper than the one we experienced in 2008/2009. Credit: Pantheon Macroeconomics

Companies are failing, jobs are being lost. The only consolation is that were it not for government support the situation would be even worse than it is.

The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, describes the taxpayer grants, loans and tax cuts on offer to households and businesses as "lifelines" - it’s hard to disagree.

April will probably prove to have been the cruellest month. In May restrictions began to lift and activity has picked-up, the worst is probably over.

This morning, in a statement, the chancellor said: "We’ve sent out our plan to gradually an safely reopen the economy. Next week more shops on the high street will be able to open again as we start to get our lives a little bit more back to normal."

But the recovery looks weak. An effective vaccine or medical treatment is absent and things will not abruptly snap-back to "normal". The government is having to manage a disease which may be around for some time.

The challenge is to chart a course out of the lockdown which maximises economic returns without causing a substantial rise in infections.

Some argue there is no trade-off between economic growth and public health, and in March that felt true.

The UK was so ill-prepared for the coronavirus outbreak that the government eventually decided that there was no alternative but to shut things down.

Had the virus been allowed to run free, the fear was the health service would have been over-whelmed and the economic damage would have been dire.

Output in 19 of the 20 sub-sectors of the UK economy slumped, in accommodation and food services it collapsed altogether. Credit: Pantheon Macroeconomics

The government has succeeded in driving down both the infection and mortality rates but at an extraordinary and unsustainable economic cost.

We cannot remain locked down but from here difficult choices need to be made and they do involve trade-offs.

A host of struggling companies are telling the government that it has the balance wrong and that restrictions need to be eased with greater urgency.

British Airways, Ryanair and Easyjet are taking legal action to overturn the new 14 day quarantine rules which they argue kill any hope of restarting flights with no obvious benefit to public health.

UK Hospitality - which represents coffee shops, pubs, restaurants, hotels and nightclubs - warns that their members can make social distancing work at 1m but if the government insists on 2m then a million jobs will be lost.

What difference would 1m make to transmission rates?

We can't be sure and the government won’t publish the advice which informs its guidance. However 1m would make a material difference to the way factories, offices and shops are able to operate.

Infection rates in places like London are low, the case for relaxing restrictions is compelling. Doing so risks a rise in infection rates and more lives lost prematurely, but not doing so risks permanent economic scarring.

This is a dilemma. How best to strike a balance? The economic costs of lockdown need to be compared with the cost of pursuing an alternative policy.

How much are we willing to spend preventing people from dying prematurely?

Some will reasonably argue that you can’t put a price on a human life but, in reality, politicians do so everyday.

Whether it’s setting the speed limit on the motorway, setting a budget for the fire service or deciding on the availability of a drug on the NHS, decisions are taken based on an assumed "value of life" - the cost, if you like, of preventing a fatality.

Human Life is precious and we should be willing to pay huge costs and make huge sacrifices to preserve it.

But resource is finite and every life cannot be saved. Trade-offs have to be made, but persuading politicians to talk openly about them is difficult.

Coronavirus: Everything you need to know