Keeping schools closed delivers a double blow to productivity

Prime Minister Boris Johnson appealed to “good solid British common sense” as he attempted to get the UK back to work this week. But the edict left many scratching their heads by urging the reopening of swathes of industry while schools remain closed.

The 5.3 million workers in the UK’s manufacturing and construction industries – many of whom are parents – are being “positively encouraged” to take up tools after lockdown, while childcare arrangements remain unclear.

Nurseries and schools are not slated to begin a phased reopening until at least June 1. Meanwhile the army of stay-at-home workers who have not been furloughed are likely to have to juggle jobs and childcare until September unless their children are in reception, year one or year six, or in exam years at secondary school.

The productivity impact of this gradual reopening in terms of the disruption to the UK’s 33 million-strong workforce could be profound if official statistics are anything to go by.

According to the Office for National Statistics’ latest figures, there are 4.6 million households in the UK – more than one in five – with children under 16 where both parents work: in nearly half of these, both have to hold down full-time jobs. Economists warn this handbrake on the workforce is likely to linger for months, denting further the already fading hopes of a V-shaped recovery.  

Vicky Redwood, chief global economist at Capital Economics, said: “The impact of school closures on output is quite big – we estimated that it knocks between 3pc and 6pc off output each quarter, depending on factors such as the extent to which parents can work from home. Re-opening the schools only partially is going to mean that this drag eases only gradually.”

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