Artillery Row

Risky business

When it comes to booking a holiday abroad, we need to protect our right to take risks and make our own decisions

Is it safe to travel this summer for a holiday in Europe? As you try to figure out whether to book a couple of weeks’ vacation in Greece, Italy, France, Spain or one of the other “amber list” countries, the most sensible thing to do may be to ignore the Government’s advice.

This is not only because that advice is contradictory — health minister James Bethell claims that “travelling is dangerous; travelling is not for this year”, while George Eustice, the environment secretary, says that people can “travel abroad [to countries on the amber list] to visit friends” — it is also because the present Government’s advice on all matters relating to Covid restrictions has no rational authority at all.

An epidemiologist’s opinion on the level of risk an individual should accept has no special authority

That may seem a ridiculous idea. Ministers insist that they base all new laws, regulations and recommendations on how people should behave during the Covid pandemic on “the science” and scientific data. They stress that they only repeat what their scientific experts tell them. And that may very well be true. The problem is that, while “the science” may (or may not: the “scientific” predictions have often turned out to be wildly wrong) be able to tell you how likely it is that Covid-19 will kill or hospitalise you, “science” cannot tell you whether it is reasonable, sensible or appropriate for you to run that level of risk. The answer to that question is an ethical or political matter. It is not a matter of data, scientific or otherwise.

If the goal of policy was to reach a situation where there was zero Covid — a situation where everyone was completely safe from the infection, and had no chance whatsoever of contracting it — the scientists’ view on policy would be more relevant. The question of what policy to follow would collapse into the question of what steps are required to reach zero Covid, a question which may well have a scientific answer.

But zero Covid is not the goal of Government policy, nor should it be. It is not possible to eliminate the Covid-19 virus, and even if it were, there is an ethical and political question of whether it would be worth doing so, given the costs of trying. That question does not have a scientific answer.

Given that perfect protection from Covid (or almost any other threat to life) cannot be achieved, “safe” is a relative, not an absolute, notion. The issue is not whether people should be exposed to some risk of catching Covid, for some risk is inevitable, it is how much risk is reasonable. That is something about which people differ profoundly. And it is not obvious that there is a right answer.

Which is why when the scientists stop simply setting out their estimates of the probabilities of catching Covid or being killed by it, and start advocating policies such as prohibiting all foreign travel, and calling for longer and more aggressive lockdowns — or any lockdown at all, come to that — they move from an area in which they have special expertise and competence to one in which they do not.

Science cannot answer the question of how much risk people should be exposed to

An epidemiologist’s pronouncement on what level of risk of death an individual should be willing to accept has no special authority. His or her view on that matter need not be worth any more than yours — it may indeed be worth less than yours when it comes to your own decision about what to do. He or she may, for instance, be very hostile to risk, and would rather give up many activities (such as foreign holidays), if doing so reduced the risk of death or serious illness by a small amount. But you enjoy risky activities such as hang-gliding or parachute jumping, and you are happy to take on a slightly higher risk of death if it enables you to visit France or Italy — just as the risk-averse epidemiologist is probably willing to accept the slightly higher risk of death involved in getting in a car. There is no reason why the epidemiologist’s attitude to risk is right and yours is wrong. You are expressing your opinion, and they are expressing theirs. There is not much more to it than that.

That explains why ministers keep providing different answers to whether foreign travel should be allowed. Their different attitudes do not mean that one or more of them has misunderstood the “science”. They simply have different attitudes to the level of risk they are willing to take, and which they believe others should be able to take.

Ministers are deliberately obscuring this simple point with their incessant claim that policy is driven solely by “the science” of “what will keep people safe” from Covid. They won’t admit that science cannot answer the question of how much risk people should be exposed to — because that would expose the truth that their policy decisions in relation to Covid are not based on “science”, but on their own personal attitude to risk. And that would make people a lot less willing to comply with them.

How should the rules and regulations dictating what risks individuals should be permitted or prohibited from running be decided? This is basically the same question as how to resolve disputes about what levels of risk people should be exposed to.

A basic principle of a free society is that, by and large, people should be able to decide for themselves what risks they are willing to take: the state should not ban, for example, hang-gliding or parachute-jumping or mountain climbing just because those activities involve greater risks than sitting at home watching TV. People should be free to take those extra risks if they choose. By and large, government regulation has tended to follow that pattern. Rather than banning risky activity such as drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes, government regulation tries to make risky activity more difficult by making attaching additional costs to it.

Whatever your attitude to risk, you can safely ignore the Government’s

When an activity, such as driving a car, involves significantly increasing the risk of harm to others as well as to oneself, the state can step in to impose rules that will diminish the risk of harm to others — for example, a law that means driving while under the influence of alcohol or over 100 miles per hour will involve heavy penalties. But if it is going to give its citizens any room at all to take their own decisions on how they will live their lives, the Government cannot prohibit an activity just because it involves taking higher risks than a state-mandated minimum. In any free society, the state should make any decision to impose restrictions on risky activities on the basis of a calculation of the costs and benefits of the activity, with those costs and benefits conceived as widely as possible. The presumption should be in favour of permitting rather than prohibiting — of allowing people make up their own minds one what level of risk they will take.

Unfortunately, ministers, including the prime minister, are unwilling to take those very simple points into account when deciding our ongoing Covid policy. They will tell you that it is too dangerous to take a holiday abroad. Don’t pay any attention. Whatever your attitude to risk, you can safely ignore theirs — at least until they threaten to imprison you if you don’t agree with them.

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