While the coronavirus outbreak is first and foremost a public health emergency, the economic damage caused by the pandemic is also a huge concern. In recent weeks, think tanks and economists have been offering their thoughts on just how badly they believe the economy will be affected by Covid-19, and how long it might take to recover.
With each passing week it’s emerging that the economic impact of the coronavirus could be more severe than first thought. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned that the shutdown of economic activity in the world’s major economies is likely to trigger a far more painful recession than the one following the financial crisis of 2008. The IMF now believes that the world is facing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
In the UK, an equally gloomy prognosis has come from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), the government’s fiscal watchdog. Its stark assessment of the possible economic impact of Covid-19 indicates that the UK economy could shrink by 35% and unemployment could rise to more than two million.
The regional picture
The economic impact of coronavirus is varying significantly across the country. Research by the Centre for Progressive Policy (CPP) has revealed that the decline in economic output is estimated to reach almost 50% in parts of the Midlands and the North West in the second quarter of this year. In terms of decline in Gross Value Added (GVA), Pendle in the North West is estimated to be the hardest hit local authority in the UK, followed closely by South Derbyshire and Corby in the East Midlands.
In Scotland, since the coronavirus outbreak began, the University of Strathclyde’s Fraser of Allander Institute (FAI) has been publishing regular updates about how business is being affected.
The FAI’s most recent survey of Scottish businesses finds that, while all sectors of the Scottish economy have been severely affected by the crisis in terms of staffing levels, the accommodation and food services sector (which includes hotels, bars and restaurants) has experienced the harshest impacts, with 77% of businesses reducing staff numbers. In addition, 85% of businesses expect growth in the Scottish economy to be weak or very weak over the next 12 months.
On a more positive note, the FAI survey found that more than 95% of businesses which are planning to use the UK government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme believe it will be ‘very effective/effective’ in supporting their survival during the pandemic.
Business and employment support
The Job Retention Scheme is one of a series of measures introduced by the UK government aiming to limit the impact of the coronavirus, and ensure much of the economy is able to recover when the health crisis is over. While these actions have been widely welcomed, there have been calls for the UK to learn from more innovative measures adopted by other governments.
A report by the Policy Exchange think tank has highlighted Denmark’s wage subsidy, which is differently calibrated to the Job Retention scheme in the UK. While the Danish government is covering 75% of the salaries of employees paid on a monthly basis who would otherwise have been fired, for hourly workers the government will cover 90% of their wages, up to £3,162 per month. The Policy Exchange report notes that this assumes that workers paid by the hour won’t have the savings and support networks that generally better off salaried workers are likely to have.
The bigger economic picture is bad enough. But the real pain of an economic recession will be felt much closer to home. For individual households, social distancing measures aiming to contain the spread of coronavirus are already having significant impacts on spending habits. Research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) has highlighted how these changes may be affecting people on different incomes.
The IFS suggests that richer households will be more resilient to falls in income since a considerable proportion of their spending goes on things that are currently not possible, such as eating out and holidays. But because lower-income households spend a higher share of their income on necessities, such as rent and food, the IFS suggests that they will be less resilient to any fall in income.
In recent days, governments in France and Germany have set out plans for easing their lockdown restrictions, while Austria and Italy have already allowed some shops to open. But the UK government has extended its lockdown to the beginning of May, and has not announced a clear exit strategy.
The uncertainty surrounding the trajectory of the coronavirus makes it exceptionally difficult to see when things might return to normal. But some analysts are becoming concerned about the harm that a prolonged lockdown might do. A discussion paper published at the beginning of April highlighted some of these dangers:
“A long lockdown will wipe out large swathes of the economy. There will be a negative impact both financially and mentally on too many people. Already the lockdown has seen a surge in domestic violence. How to end the lockdown is key to helping restart the economy.”
The authors of the paper have put forward a strategy for ending the lockdown, suggesting that a phased traffic light approach (red, amber, green) would give everyone a clear sense of direction and address the economic, social and quality of life challenges posed by the lockdown.
After the virus
There is no clear agreement among economists on how the economy might fare once the health emergency has passed. Some economists forecast a sharp recovery, others suggest it will take two or more quarters, while still others forecast an initial boost in activity followed by another dip when the effects of unemployment and corporate bankruptcies start to filter through.
But there is a growing sense that the pandemic will have a fundamental impact on the economic and financial order. And in the UK, Paul Johnson, director of the IFS, has suggested there will be an economic reckoning:
“We will need a complete reappraisal of economic policy once the current economic dislocation is behind us. Tough decisions will have to be made which are likely to involve tax rises and higher debt for some time to come. The only other alternative would be another period of austerity on the spending side. That looks unlikely.”
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