Economists wonder if the cost of lockdown was worth it – but is it right to put a price on life?

Professor David Miles’s study may seem ‘macabre’, but it’s a valuable thought experiment, writes John Rentoul

Saturday 01 August 2020 22:10
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A police officer patrols the streets of Leicester
A police officer patrols the streets of Leicester

Professor David Miles is an economist, not an epidemiologist, so his study of the effect of coronavirus starts by putting a price on each life saved. As he says, “many will feel uneasy at such calculations”, especially as his conclusion is that the UK has spent far more to prevent each coronavirus death than the NHS would normally spend on other diseases.

His paper, published by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research last week, found that even if we take the highest estimate of the number of lives saved by the lockdown, 440,000, and the lowest estimate of the economic cost, the country has spent far more than the “value” of the lives saved.

This is, as he admits, a “macabre” thought experiment, and there are many objections to it, both moral and methodological. His study starts with the value put on a year of life by Nice, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, which advises the NHS on whether new drugs are worth the cost for the years of life they are likely to save.

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