At times, the argument about lockdown has been described as a choice between saving lives or saving money. But this is a false equivalence. A weak economy leads to weakened citizens: it means less tax revenue, less money for the NHS, and poorer families — wealth and health are all too-closely linked. Just look at the difference in height between Koreans, depending on which side of the 38th parallel their grandparents happened to be caught on.
It’s easy to measure money, but it’s far harder to measure the indirect results of a richer or poorer economy. It’s also hard to work out how much money you should spend to save a life. Ban cars, and you’ll end road deaths. But you’d also hit the economy. So a balance has to be struck somewhere.
This balance has been researched extensively at the University of Bristol, where we have developed the ‘J-value’ (‘J’ stands for ‘judgement’). It’s intended as an objective answer to the safety questions that arise from nuclear plants, railways and the infrastructure that improves our material lives — including in the NHS. How much should a nuclear power plant spend on protecting its workers? Is it cost-effective to install a new safety system for railway signalling? Should the government be spending more to prevent road deaths? In short, the J-value balances the amount of life expectancy that a safety measure restores against its cost. And, it takes the ethical stance that each day of life has the same value for everyone — whether an individual is rich or poor, young or old.
The J-value is especially useful when looking at our response to coronavirus — and particularly whether the cost of locking down is too high. It does this by calculating the ‘years’ lost from a prolonged recession caused by locking down, which we can then compare to the number of years we would lose to the disease itself.