So imagine what it would be like, if we never took risks: Why it is so hard to balance upsides and downsides when it comes to public policy

In these coronavirus days we spend a lot of time talking and thinking about risk. Is it okay to meet someone if I stand two metres away? Will it be okay to send the kids back to school? What about going back to the office? Am I better off avoiding the Underground? What will happen if I go to Tesco twice a week rather than once? Our days are filled with weighing up the pluses and minuses of decisions we might take: what is acceptable and what is not.

The Government, too, is apparently trying to measure risks and make policies accordingly. At one point it looked like the NHS might be overwhelmed so in we went to lockdown. Now the bigger risk is to the economy so Ministers want us to start heading back outside. But unfortunately they did too good a job of scaring us in the first place, and now 71% of the public say that they are nervous about leaving the house even if businesses are allowed to reopen and travel restrictions are lifted. The on-going controversy over re-opening schools in a week also reflects this widespread concern.

So alongside taking ‘hard’ decisions about what is allowed and what is not the Government is going to have to mount a ‘soft’ campaign to reassure people that it will all be okay. The problem is this will be hard, because public discussions about risk are rarely illuminating. And for that politicians, the media and ultimately all of us are at fault for our inability to think rationally and balance the pros and cons of any decision, particularly if some of the associated risks are immediate and some seem far off.

This problem is not new. As an example, many years ago I was the Clerk of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee in Parliament. At the time debate was raging about whether genetically modified foods could or should be planted in this country, and the newspapers were full of headlines about ‘flava savr’ tomatoes and other Frankenfoods. The environmental fundraising lobby was in full voice promoting something called the ‘precautionary principle’, an insidious argument which was presented as sensible and necessary: we were weighing up the risks and concluding that even the slightest risk to the nation’s health wasn’t worth taking.

Except that this was far from an intelligent debate about risks. Instead the precautionary principle was used to kill off debate. Arguments about reducing food waste, or reducing pesticide use, or increasing yield were steamrollered by the juggernaut. Suggestions that GM might be part of adapting to climate change, or of improving the health and livelihoods of people across the world, were poo-poohed. The argument was that these future benefits were not worth taking even a tiny risk now. Policy-making became hostage to the concept that we should only ever make decisions when we are absolutely certain of the outcome. This is a recipe for never making any progress at all. And our politicians went along with it because they know they are less likely to get blamed by the media and the public for *not* taking a decision than for taking one with even a fraction of 1% of a chance of an adverse outcome.

We can see this unwillingness to be honest about risk in a host of policy areas. There are few decisions that don’t involve some sort of trade off, some balancing of competing priorities, some risks. But politicians rarely try to explain this, instead feeling they have to suggest we live in a fantasy world where there are no downsides to anything. Taxes can go up without affecting the job market or enterprise. The NHS can focus on reducing waiting times in A&E without impacting on other services. We can indulge in an orgy of austerity without undermining our capability to deliver public services. If any politician acknowledges that there is a balance of risks in any decision they are all too often castigated by the media and ultimately by the electorate.

Coronavirus is forcing Ministers to be a little more honest than usual, with all the talk of R rates and hard choices being made. But it is still far from an adult conversation – and who can blame them for that when they face a media is full of ‘scandals’ about decisions made on testing and everything else and shrieking headlines about keeping us safe. Only recently has there been any serious public discussion about the fact that yes, lots of people die every day, even in normal times; and only in the past few weeks has it become mainstream to admit that lockdown is already having a terrible impact on the economy, on mental health, on physical well-being, on education and on lots more. The on-going campaign to see all the advice given in SAGE, with the implied hope of finding a smoking gun, contributes to this backdrop of finger-pointing and blame. Is it any wonder that politicians find it hard to speak honestly about balancing risks?

And yet they are going to have to try, because all they face now is hard choices. Some decisions will lead to increased numbers of deaths. Some will mean hundreds of thousands on the dole. It is time for Ministers, starting with the PM, to acknowledge and explain this openly and honestly to the public. This is the most adult-to-adult communication exercise the Government has had to undergo in decades, and it will taken leadership and clear messaging to do it. So far Government communications about coronavirus has been characterised by missteps and sloganeering. Time now for a more grown up approach.

And once they’ve pulled that off Ministers can move on to another topic they find it hard to talk about: taxes. How will they turn the Thursday night clapping and chants of “pay them more” into public willingness actually to cough up more? Let’s hope they continue to treat us like adults then, too, and don’t pretend everything can be solved via sleight of hand and a levy on a few billionaires. Maybe they will pass the ultimate test and admit that increasing both the higher and basic rate of tax is going to be needed to plug the hole in the national finances. I am not holding my breath.