How do you put a cost on a life? It’s often said that human life is priceless, but that of course is a nonsense. Insurers and actuaries weigh it in their scales every day and now Boris Johnson has the biggest call for any prime minister to make outside of a war: the trade-off between “health and wealth” as he plots a path out of lockdown.
Politicians are deeply uncomfortable discussing such issues in public for fear of being portrayed as callous. Behind every cold statistic in the mounting Covid-19 death toll is, after all, an individual personal tragedy. But the Cabinet has been divided into hawkish and dovish camps for weeks now, and the calls from the Government’s own backbenches for reopening have been getting louder.
Those of us unburdened by the disadvantage of facing the voters can also speak with more candour. And it is clear that the internment of the UK population is now doing more harm than good. It will make us poorer, entrench intergenerational inequalities, and potentially scar the incomes of millions of people for generations to come.
Although the exact figure is disputed, you may be surprised to learn that the Treasury puts a £2m price tag on the cost of a life. This is the “value of a prevented fatality” (VPF) based on the death of an average person in an incident such as a road traffic accident, and used by hard-headed regulators to work out the trade-off between the cost of a life saved and the cost of implementing new rules.