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Keeping the R rate between 0.6 and 0.75 is optimum for rebooting the economy and saving lives

Germany should tread carefully as it eases lockdown restrictions to keep its coronavirus reproduction rate in a sweet spot that protects health while minimising economic damage, researchers have warned.

Keeping the country’s R rate between around 0.6 and 0.75 provides the safest balance between hammering output and risking a new outburst of infections, said researchers at the ifo Institute – one of Germany’s biggest think-tanks – and the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (HZI).

“The strategy of prudent, step-by-step relaxation is preferable not only in terms of health policy but also economically,” said ifo President Clemens Fuest and HZI’s Michael Meyer-Hermann. “If policymakers allow more economic activity in the short term, our simulation analyses show that this extends the restrictions phase to such a degree that the overall costs increase.”

Based on Germany’s situation on April 20, researchers said epidemiological and economic calculations showed that “a slight relaxation at most would be suitable to minimise the economic costs without jeopardising the medical objectives”.

Germany began its first phase of easing its lockdown measures that day, with Chancellor Angela Merkel warning easing measures too quickly could lead to a surge in new cases. The country, which has had fewer than 10,000 deaths, has been praised for its response to the outbreak.

At the time restrictions were relaxed, the country’s R rate stood around 0.65. It spiked over 1.1 after an outbreak in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia early this month, but quickly pulled back to 0.75, according to the Robert Koch Institute.

A value beneath 1 means each infected person is passing the virus on to less than one other person. The ifo and HZI researchers said the pre-April 20 measures would have dealt a €333 billion blow to the German economy, provided the infection rate remained steady. They said a “slight loosening” that pushed the rate to 0.75 – as has occurred – would “actually increase value added by some €26bn”.

But a further swing in the rate of R prompted by shifting restrictions could have heavy consequences, they added. The temptation to ease up restrictions further could drive the R back over 1, would “entail considerably higher economic costs”, and result in tens of thousands of additional deaths, they said, while “a tightening of measures would push up economic costs under any scenario”.

Driving the rate down to 0.5 would cost a further €77bn, while squashing it right down to 0.1 would trigger a €277bn hit, the researchers said.

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