Corona Impact: School closures could cut 3% from UK’s GDP

United Kingdom: School closures lasting four weeks could cut 3% from the UK’s GDP, costing the economy billions of pounds, according to research being considered by the government as it weighs up the benefits and risks of shutting down classrooms.

Advisers at the Department for Education and No 10 are examining a range of options from complete closure of all schools and colleges in England, which would affect around 7 million children, to more nuanced policies.

Measures being looked at include those effected in Japan, where schools sent home individual classes and age groups when a certain percentage of children were infected, and Austria, where elementary schools have stayed open to effectively act as daycare for the children of essential workers. Belgium has followed a similar path. Other countries have closed all schools.

Shutting schools would mean that millions of families would have to find childcare, causing gaps in the workforce as parents stay at home. That would worsen the economic impact and affect essential workers on the front-line: 47% of GPs in England and Wales are aged 30-45, the age group most likely to have school-aged children, and so would face a scramble for childcare lasting many weeks.

The pressure to close schools has mounted as other European governments have enacted different policies. Over the past week, Greece, Poland and Denmark announced national school closures, then Ireland and France followed on Thursday, along with much of Spain, and Belgium on Friday, leaving the UK more isolated. Schools in Germany remain open other than in a few hotspots, although that is expected to change early next week.

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Announcing limited new measures to tackle corona-virus on Thursday, Boris Johnson told a press conference: “We are not – repeat not – closing schools now. The scientific advice is it will do more harm than good at this time, but of course we’re keeping an open view and may change this as the disease spreads. Schools should only close if they are specifically told to do so.”

Government advisors believe that closures would have to be at least 13 weeks long to reduce the peak of Covid-19 by 10%-15%, and there are concerns that children out of school would end up socialising anyway or spending time with grandparents, who are at greater risk from the virus.

The advisers admit that economic considerations are an inevitable part of calculations. They have been attempting to model the impact of school closures on the spread of Covid-19, with mixed results.

Simon Wren-Lewis, an emeritus professor of economics at Oxford who co-authored a study of past influenza pandemics, has estimated direct losses caused by the illness to be 1% to 2% of output, measured by gross domestic product (GDP) – which would multiply if schools were closed for extended periods.

“School closures can amplify the reduction in labour supply if some workers are forced to take time off to look after children. On the basis of the assumptions we made, if schools close for around four weeks, that can multiply the GDP impacts by as much as a factor of three, and if they close for a whole quarter, by twice that.

“If that seems large, remember nationwide school closures impact everyone with children and not just those with the disease,” Wren-Lewis wrote.

“But even with all schools closed for three months and many people avoiding work when they were not sick, the largest impact we got for GDP loss over a year was less than 5%. That is a one-quarter very severe recession but there is no reason why the economy cannot bounce back to full strength once the pandemic is over.”

Speaking at a conference of headteachers in Birmingham on Friday, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, stressed the government’s case for keeping schools in England open, while most of Britain’s European neighbours closed theirs.

“The chief medical officer has said the impact of closing schools on children’s education will be substantial, but the benefit to public health would not be. The government is particularly mindful of the strain on public services like the NHS that would be caused by key workers having to stay home to look after their children as a result of school closures,” he said.

Williamson said that position could change, depending on the view of the government’s scientific and medical advisers.

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Inside Whitehall, policymakers and civil servants are wrestling with conflicting evidence from different countries during the current coronavirus outbreak, as well as research that school closures have appeared to slow the transmission of disease among children and their families in previous pandemics.

“This isn’t some clever Oxbridge tutorial, it’s a real thing that politicians and civil servants are having to face right now,” said one external consultant who has been advising the government on its public health policies.

Several leading British universities have also pre-empted the government. The London School of Economics announced an end to in-person lectures and exams for the rest of the academic year, medical schools have cancelled clinical exams for trainee doctors, and a growing number of international students have left their courses to return to their home countries.

The push to close schools is based on lessons from previous influenza epidemics, when it was seen to have softened the impact. But in those cases children were also at greater risk from disease, making the public health risks more acute. The government’s policymakers caution that Covid-19 appears to be less of a direct danger to children, so the sole value of closures would be to help with “social distancing”.

Source: The Guardian