Despite denials of politicians and other advisors, trade-offs have already been apparent in many policy decisions addressing the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic and its social and economic consequences. Here, we illustrate why it is important, from a wellbeing perspective, to recognise such trade-offs, and provide a framework, based on the economic concept of ‘marginal analysis’, for doing so. We illustrate its potential through consideration of optimising the balance between reducing the reproductive rate (R) of the virus and further opening of the economy. The framework accommodates both perspectives in the health-vs-economy debate whereby, depending on where we are within the marginal analysis framework, either health issues are allowed to dominate or, below some threshold of R and/or background level of infection, health and economic considerations can be traded off against each other. Given the inevitability of such trade-offs, the framework exposes crucial questions to be addressed, such as: the critical value of R and/or background infection, above which health considerations predominate, and which may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction; and the value of lives forgone resulting from the small increases in R and/or background infection levels that may have to be tolerated as the economy is gradually opened.