The risks of record-breaking coronavirus GDP figures

Sienna Rodgers
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The Office for National Statistics revealed this morning that GDP fell by 20.4% in April, which is the biggest monthly decline since records began. The impact dwarfs that seen during the 2008 recession, when the UK economy shrunk by no more than 2.1% in a quarter. This is hardly surprising: the coronavirus restrictions were announced towards the end of March, and almost every area of the economy was affected with significant sectors coming to a standstill. But the new figures will be used as evidence to support the rush to unlock quickly and perhaps unsafely.

As chronicled by Dr Liz Hind in a series of LabourList pieces, pubs are being pressured to open as government support is pulled away and debts pile up. The Tories feel that it is time for small business owners and employees to ‘get on your bike’, however, and that Rishi Sunak has displayed enough generosity. Boris Johnson is instead being urged to relax the two-metre rule. But is it safe when the R rate is only just under the danger level of one?

The fresh GDP figures bring into sharp focus the need for a national recovery plan that protects jobs – and creates them too, hopefully helping the UK to become greener in the process. The TUC is rightly calling for trade unions to be involved in that effort to ‘build back better’. But reactions to the GDP data also raise questions over the value of the indicator and arguably our over-reliance on it.

During an IPPR event last night, Ed Miliband described GDP as “an inadequate measure”, saying: “GDP casts a very long shadow and has a dominance that is way out of proportion to the attention that we should be giving it.” Keir Starmer argued during the leadership contest that wellbeing and economic growth should be prioritised equally, and this view is more relevant now than ever. Private wealth must not take precedence over public health.

Jonathan Ashworth has used his latest LabourList update on Labour’s Covid-19 response to talk about the collapse in patient care standards. It is important to remember that the NHS has coped during the coronavirus crisis – but only after “discharging patients into care homes, cancelling operations and delaying vital cancer treatment”, as the Shadow Health Secretary notes. Many are going without the treatment they need. Government policy must be guided by these concerns above all.

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