There is no such thing as freedom from risk. We live in a world full of hazards, big and small, and the risk which we are prepared to embrace at any particular moment is perceived according to the magnitude of what might happen if it goes wrong, coupled with the reward we gain from accepting it. Covid is no exception to this rule of thumb.
For many years I have been interested in risk. Being, amongst other things, one of those “physicists” that Dominic Cummings likes to laud (I was never a very good one) I almost pursued a PhD in risk but ended up with a PhD in business. For much of my corporate career in mass consumer facing businesses and in my entrepreneurial activity I was very much involved in risk management and communication. Often I employed panels of advisors; scientists, medics, veterinarians, economists and learned that a wide range of opinion was the best means of stress testing theories and arguments, unlike with SAGE, the government’s advisory boffins, contrarians were welcome on my panels.
My voluntary, NED roles in the public sector were equally “risky” whether the Health and Safety Commission, the Competition Commission or with the NHS, they all involved decision making on risk.
Ultimate decision making was not the purview of the “experts” who often disagreed, but the “lay person“ making policy decisions in the round, rather as is the Prime Minister in these difficult days. It is very important in a democracy, or a business for that matter, that the experts do not decide and that those that do, take responsibility. That the arguments are stress tested, not taken as read.
One of the things I discovered quite early on about the concept of risk is that there is a big red herring in a lot of academic thinking and built into the now fashionable “risk registers”. That is that risk is a computation of the hazard coupled with the likelihood that it will occur. We often hear of “one in a hundred year” events and so on. In fact I always treated frequency as irrelevant, if it can happen and it happens this year it is irrelevant that it is infrequent.
The things that really count are as follows:
1) Can it happen? If yes then it is a hazard worth considering.
2) When it happens, is it possible to mitigate or militate? Events like destruction by meteorite tend to fall off at this point.
3) What is the magnitude of the hazard and how much resource or cost is necessary to militate or mitigate?
4) Are there factors in trying to avoid it that will generate downsides and how do you balance these against the hazard?
It is often helpful to quantify this in money terms, in a business context as shareholder value, in a societal context as wealth. At least this is measurable on both sides of the equation. It is notable that the cost per person, (per life saved) has been way higher for Covid than for the normal price placed upon a life by the NHS/NICE when considering drug use approval.
One more thing that I learned about risk is that there is a significant relationship between the reaction to it and perception, in particular the extent to which the individual perceiving the risk has any control over the hazard and the horror factor associated with it.
For example, the risk of dying associated with flying in an aeroplane, measured per mile (although not per journey), is far less than driving a car but people perceive air crashes as much more horrifying and they have personal control when driving a car which they do not in an aeroplane, albeit no control over other drivers.
The onset of Covid was accompanied by a fear campaign in order to ensure compliance, perhaps necessary in the first lockdown given the unknowns at the time. Conversely masks, which have very little evidence of efficacy, were no doubt pushed upon us in order to make those scared “Wittyless” after the first lockdown, re-emerge like troglodytes into the sunlight and feel sufficiently safe wearing the token mask, to start to move the economy once again.
The importance of all this, in the context of Covid, is that there are many more considerations than just the infection rate in deciding the right course of action.
In fact, hitherto, the issue at the top of mind of government has been saving lives and protecting the NHS. Nothing to do with the infection rate, which on its own leads to immunity from infection – exactly what we want.
At present Covid deaths represent just 1.5 per cent of all deaths and the number of deaths of all causes (many quite likely a result of undiagnosed and untreated disease during lockdown) is just less than 600 more than the five year weekly average. This data ought to be weighed against the following when decisions on continuing restrictions are tabled.
Lockdowns have created a £400bn debt pile which can only be paid down by taxes- which we should absolutely avoid – or by boosting the economy with tax cuts, deregulation, investment and trade arrangements , all now possible post Brexit, and thus boosting tax receipts. The debt pile will naturally resolve itself over time, but we must seek super growth right now. The alternative will be misery.
While the public sector has been feather bedded, many businesses have survived thus far by the skin of their teeth, any further continuance of restrictions will see them fail and the disappearance of the jobs that go with them. If they go, so will the economic boost and we will look into the abyss of a vicious cycle of debt. If we rack up more debt we may pass the point of no return.
Lockdowns and restrictions have also had a deleterious effect on the health of the nation, mental and physical. This has led to a tidal wave of backlog cases for the NHS, a direct result of the fear deliberately generated in people and of the NHS not doing its job during lockdown, after all only a minority of staff were engaged in ICU activity. Test and Trace was a drain on resources and costly failure. Nightingales proved to be expensive white elephants and shamefully, many GP surgeries simply closed and put up the shutters. Undiagnosed and untreated disease will cast a long shadow.
No doubt in years to come, when the full review of the pandemic takes place it will be recognised that those places that did not lock down fared about the same as those that did, but without the economic damage. After all, much evidence suggests that infection waves had already peaked before each lockdown in the UK It will also be acknowledged that mask wearing was of little practical value. At which point the risk ratio of hazard versus measures to mitigate and militate will look very different than we have been led to believe.
Fortunately, because of the supreme effort of No.10 and the private sector (not the NHS) to produce and procure effective vaccines we have the possibility never to go back to lockdowns and we now have a golden opportunity to get ahead of the economic curve by instituting freedom day and going forward with super growth strategies, with all the societal benefits this will bring. Moreover, with a vaccinated population, we can regain our liberty and should be able to travel. The vaccines either work, in which case this is all possible, or they don’t, in which case why have we been having them?
The Prime Minister must deliver our freedom and question the motives of the naysayers.
John Longworth is chairman of the Independent Business Network of family businesses, a former Conservative MEP and the former director general of the British Chambers of Commerce.