Ross Clark Ross Clark

How many years of life did lockdown save – or destroy?

Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP via Getty Images

It’s official – lockdown will eventually have a greater impact on our lives and health than Covid-19 itself. That, at any rate, is the conclusion of a study by the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), which was published quietly on 15 July. 

The study uses a measure known as quality-adjusted life-years (QALYs), which takes into account the age, health and quality of life of people prior to their death – if a young child died in an accident, for example, it would result in a loss of around 80 QALYs, on the basis that they might otherwise have been expected to live a full and healthy life; if a bedridden 80-year-old with terminal lung cancer died of Covid-19, on the other hand, it would result in a loss of virtually zero QALYs, on the basis that they were soon expected to die anyway, and that their quality of life in the interim was very low. The concept of QALYs has been criticised on the grounds that it takes a rather cold attitude towards human life and might not take into account the value that many people reaching the end of their lives place on their last few weeks and months. But it is surely a better reflection of the toll from Covid-19, or any other disease or incident, than the simple daily death toll which we have been presented with since the beginning of this crisis.

The DHSC study claims that in the year to March 2021, the direct loss of life from Covid-19 will amount to 530,000 QALYs. It also claims that a reduction of road accidents during lockdown saved 30,000 QALYs and that the adoption of healthier lifestyles – which some may well challenge – will save another 30,000 QALYs. However, then comes the negative side of the ledger.

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