Governments face a dilemma in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic – impose an early lockdown to slow the virus’ spread and encourage good health practice or delay to protect jobs and learn more about how the virus behaves, a new study reveals.

Early lockdown encourages people to adopt certain habits, such as hand washing and wearing masks, which they continue even when restrictions are lifted. This is an argument for favouring early lockdown so that these beneficial habits are acquired as soon as possible

However, there is a cost from loss of information about the virulence and spread of the disease, as well as a direct cost to the economy. In the early stages of the emergence of the disease when the value of additional information about the virus is high, governments may delay imposing lockdown restrictions.

Experts have developed a mathematical model that allows policy makers to assess whether the government should impose a lockdown, how intense should the lockdown be and if imposed early, for how long should it be.

Researchers found that governments with information on the virus from other countries tended to lock down early in comparison to where governments had no information but the effect is moderated by factors such as cost to the economy, trust in the government and population age composition which varies across countries.

Experts from the Universities of Birmingham, Bath, Leicester and Penn State University, in the USA, have published their findings in the Journal of Mathematical Economics.

The research team created a model which explains variation in lockdown intensity and timing seen across the world - rationalising looser restrictions in parts of the US where trust in government appears low or why Italy as the first country in Europe to face the virus may have delayed lockdown.

One of the authors Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay, Professor of Economics at the University of Birmingham, comments: “Governments across the world have differed in the timing, intensity and duration of lockdown. It is not just a question of ‘lives versus livelihood’ but lockdown decisions also have implications for learning about the propagation of the disease in the population and can induce beneficial habit formation.

"Whilst governments around the world seem to have considered a range of factors in their lockdown decision, they may also have misjudged how far people will comply. This partly explains, for instance, why the UK delayed the first lockdown as the Government underestimated the compliance level of the population.”

The researchers found that imposing a lockdown too soon prevents any learning about how infectious the disease is or what population groups are most harmed by it. The disease cannot take its natural course and this delays understanding of the harm that can be caused.

They note that when schools were closed, experts were unable to understand the extent of propagation of the disease among adults from asymptomatic school children – useful learning for preparation against combating the disease. Understanding how vaccines work in the real world also requires a lockdown to be eased or lifted.

“There is a trade-off in determining how governments should decide on the timing, length and intensity of lockdown – in addition to habit formation and learning, this decision also depends on the degree of economic loss, public backlash and expected timing of arrival of the vaccine,” comments Professor Bandyopadhyay.

“Given that the virus mutates causing new strains with varying impacts on the population, we must bear in mind that learning about the way the virus propagates is not a question confined to the initial stages of when the disease first appeared.”

Co-author Dr. Kaustav Das, Lecturer at the University of Leicester adds: “Clearly, governments across the world have tried to estimate how well their citizens comply which we believe will lead to more work on how people assess risk as it is crucial to the strength of the habit formation parameter in our model.”

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  • ‘Learning versus habit formation: Optimal timing of lockdown for disease containment’ - Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay, Kalyan Chatterjee, Kaustav Das, and Jaideep Roy is published by Journal of Mathematical Economics - why not read the research paper.