England’s accountancy of death

Boris Johnson’s agenda of forcing workers to return to unsafe workplaces, urged in speeches characterised by his usual clowning incoherency, has been more thoughtfully if sinisterly promoted by a document published on Wednesday by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR). The NIESR is funded by government departments and agencies, the research councils, particularly the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

The report appears in the August edition of the NIESR ‘s own review, authored by David Miles, Professor at Imperial College London, a member, between 2009 and 2015, of the Monetary Policy Committee at the Bank of England and Chief UK Economist at Morgan Stanley from 2004 to 2009; Mike Stedman, director of the RES Consortium; and Dr Adrian Heald of the University of Manchester’s School of Medicine, and Labour candidate for mid-Norfolk in the last general election.

The Daily Mail predictably endorsed the report ‘s message in its coverage last week. Bluntly put, it is this: the saving of hundreds of thousands of lives in the lockdown was a waste of money and shouldn’t be tried again.

The report justifies the Malthusian rationale behind the Tory government’s continuing policy of herd immunity—i.e., allowing the SARS-CoV-2 virus to kill people, especially those selected as legitimate target groups: BAME communities, the elderly and care home residents generally, including the mentally disabled.

The report addresses the imposition on the 23 March of the lockdown, which was reluctantly imposed by Johnson’s cabal and due largely to public pressure as the virus swept across Europe and the UK. 

Throughout the report, the lockdown measure is described in disparaging terms on almost every occasion.  Its “grave economic costs” are emphasised unfavourably in spurious comparisons with a figure of saving 20,000 lives- a figure plucked out of some pseudo-scientific hat. The recurring message behind this is that there must never be another lockdown. The saving of the billionaire economy must take precedence- whatever the cost in lives. 

The authors Miles, Stedman and Heald maintan “We use (rather arbitrarily) a ‘lowest’ estimate of 20,000” and add “whether keeping such tight restrictions in place for three months (until restrictions began to be eased substantially at the end of June) was warranted, given the large costs, is very far from clear.”

And again: “There is contradictory evidence on the effectiveness of the three-month lockdown strategy in the UK.”

In estimating the cost of the lockdown, the authors use a formula called the “Quality-adjusted Life Year” (QALY).

What follows is a series of calculations:

“Our low-end estimate of the (narrowly defined) cost of the March to June lockdown was 9 per cent of GDP—a figure of £200 billion.” 

“For every permutation of lives saved and GDP lost the costs of lockdown exceed the benefits. Even if lives saved are as high as 440,000, each of which means an extra ten years of quality adjusted life—and when the lost output (assumed to be a sufficient and comprehensive measure of all costs of the lockdown) is simply the likely shortfall in incomes in 2020—costs are still over 50 per cent higher than the benefits of a three month lockdown (benefits = £132 billion; costs = £200 billion).”

In the event they use the arbitrarily chosen and utterly spurious figure of 20,000 lives saved- and thus construct an even more unfavourable picture of lockdown in their audit of death.

All this leads to their final assessment. They conclude, “For every permutation of lives saved and GDP lost the costs of lockdown exceed the benefits.”

In an almost zen moment of irony they add “these are macabre thought experiments and many will feel uneasy at such calculations”. (‘macabre’… ‘experiments’…’calculations’).

The value of life is subsumed in the equation of profitability for the major corporations. 

This ‘accountancy of Death’ apologetics is directly in the tradition of Thomas Malthus, the Anglican clergyman and ancestor to the social-Darwinist eugenics policies of 20th-century horror regimes like that of the Nazis.

The reverend gentleman wrote in 1798 “the power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind [wars, for example] are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction; and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague, advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and ten thousands.” 

Charles Trevelyan, Whig (Liberal) member of the British government that oversaw the Irish Famine of the 1840s viewed the famine as an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population” and a “direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence” on the “selfish, perverse and turbulent” Irish. A fervent evangelical Christian, Trevelyan was a disciple of Malthus at Haileybury.

The long legacy of maintaining a brutal empire, noted for its record figures in slave-trading, just to mention one historical horror in the news at the moment, is the default ghoulish mindset behind this latest report.

Patrick Carey


Photo: Guy Smallman