Part Three – The Spillover Benefits of Lockdowns

We must recognise that MNPIs have generated benefits, and seek to measure and quantify them alongside the harms

Published  17 May 2021

Part Three in Paul Dolan’s six-part series ‘Making Policy Better’

The policy responses to Covid-19 have impacted all our lives in several ways, and will continue to do so for many years to come. There have been remarkably few serious attempts to set out what these impacts are, let alone to measure them. Since March 2020, I have expressed various concerns about the ways in which attempts to suppress the spread of the virus will also suppress the life experiences and life expectancies of young people, those with mental health problems, those at risk from other illnesses, and so on.

It is entirely likely that the “cure” of mandated non-pharmaceutical interventions (MNPIs) or “lockdowns” will cause much more harm to overall wellbeing than the “disease”. We must seek to measure and quantify these impacts in ways that will enable governments to make better decisions in future pandemics, and in calmer times too. In so doing, we must also recognise that MNPIs have generated some significant benefits, which we must seek to measure and quantify alongside the harms.

Every policy decision has costs and benefits. Whatever our personal beliefs about lockdowns, we all must be alert to this and willing to revise our views about what best to do when more and better evidence becomes available. In this way, we can break down some of the harmful polarisations we have witnessed over the past year.

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Here are some of the expected benefits of MNPIs, for which some evidence is currently available (accessible via hyperlink).

1. Reduced air pollution

2. Increase in wildlife

3. Decrease in other respiratory conditions

4. Fewer road traffic accidents

5. Reduced workplace accidents

6. Increased active travel

7. Reduced crime  

8. Increased take-up of technology

9. Increased volunteering

10. Increased savings for some

11. Increased relationship satisfaction for some

12. Increased diet and exercise for some

And here are some effects for which there could well be evidence in due course (and if not, we should be seeking to gather it):

13. Less ineffective use of A&E

14. Reduced business air travel

15. Better work-life balance for some

16. Increased respect for key workers

16. Better time use for some

18. Better sleep for some

19. Increased local community for some

20. Improved local economy

21. Redistribution from landlords to renters on commercial property

22. Redistribution from landlords to renters on residential property

* * *

Some of these effects might stick into the longer-term too – but which ones? Well, no one knows, of course, and the middle of a crisis is the wrong time to make predictions. But some of the workplace benefits are likely to last, for example.

And then there will be a whole host of rebound effects. There is precedent for this from past pandemics. The roaring 20s followed the 1918 influenza pandemic, and the 1958 flu spike heralded in the swinging 60s. So, it’s not unreasonable to hope for – even expect – a similar outpouring of creativity and innovation in the 2020s.

In Happiness by Design, I argue that happy lives contain the optimal balance between pleasure and purpose. Most of us have had our sources of pleasure heavily curtailed over the last year – even those of us lucky enough to have jobs that yield a sense of purpose. So, I reckon that we fully expect a hedonistic revolution in the coming years.

Every cloud and all that…

Click here to read Part Two, Using Resources Fairly.

Paul Dolan is Professor of Behavioural Science at London School of Economics and Political Science He is the best-selling author of Happiness by Design and Happy Ever After, and the host of the new Duck-Rabbit podcast. www.pauldolan.co.uk.

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