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There will be a “significant number of deaths” if the Covid-19 pandemic plunges the UK economy into an “L-shaped” recession, the country’s statistics tsar has warned.
Sir Ian Diamond, UK national statistician, told MPs on Wednesday that poverty and long-term unemployment will damage health if the economy tumbles into prolonged recession.
Forecasts vary over how much damage the pandemic will do, from a relatively-optimistic “V-shaped” dip, which would see UK gross domestic product (GDP) bounce back straight away, to the worst case scenario, the “L-shaped” deep recession, which would see growth fail to recover to its previous rate for years.
Diamond told the Commons’ public administration and constitutional affairs committee that if economists’ greatest fears were realised, there would be an increase in mortality.
He said: “If – and I stress, if – we end up with an L-shaped recession as opposed to a V-shape where we come back out quite quickly, an L-shape over a long period of time could lead to a significant number of deaths as a result of people being pushed into poverty or into long-term unemployment.”
It came as Boris Johnson began to ease the lockdown, shifting the government’s core message from “stay at home” to “stay alert” and asking people to return to work if doing their job from home was impossible.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak extended the government’s emergency wages programme – also called the furlough scheme – to the end of October as many restrictions and business closures remain in place.
It has meant businesses can ask the government to pay 80% of an employee’s wages, up to £2,500, where they are affected by the lockdown. But Sunak has warned that, from August, as restrictions are lifted, firms will be asked to contribute.
The UK economy shrank by 2% in the first quarter of 2020, official figures released on Wednesday confirmed.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said activity plunged 5.8% in March, sending first-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) to its biggest fall since the end of 2008 at the height of the financial crisis.
But, as Johnson tries to navigate a way out of the lockdown, fears about a second spike in coronavirus cases remain.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have rejected the prime minister’s new approach in the their respective nations, cautioning that people may not yet be safe from contagion.
Diamond described the UK as experiencing “three epidemics” of Covid-19: one in care homes, one in the community and one in hospitals.
He cautioned that while cases were falling, it was happening “not as speedily as we would perhaps like”.
“We are through the current peak,” he said. “It does seem to me we need to be worried as a nation that as we come through this current peak we do not seed another one.”
The statistician also said the public should be “careful” when comparing the UK’s death toll from coronavirus with that of other countries.
Figures on Tuesday showed that 32,692 people in the UK have lost their lives after testing positive for the disease, with more than 40,000 people thought to have died when taking into account suspected cases outside hospitals.
For Italy, Spain, France and Germany, the national figures stand at 30,911, 26,920, 26,643 and 7,667 respectively. America, meanwhile, has recorded a total of 81,779 deaths.
Diamond would not confirm the UK had Europe’s largest death toll as it was unclear “exactly whether we are comparing apples with apples and pears with pears” due to different reporting methods in other countries.
He also said that the full indirect effects of the coronavirus epidemic in the UK may not be known for years, with deaths due to cancelled cancer screenings or a prolonged recession likely to only emerge in the long term.
Diamond said the planned NHS contact-tracing app could only be part of an “ecosystem” of measures to track the spread of the virus, rather than a total solution.
“I fear that some of the most vulnerable members of our society will perhaps be the least likely to get the app, whether it is old people, whether it is people from disadvantaged groups,” he said.
But he added that the app “is a very important part of an ecosystem of data that we need in order to be able to manage the next stage of the pandemic which critically has to be about reducing the probability of a second peak”.