You are not very good at judging risk. Sorry, but it’s true. All humans have a tendency (studied by psychologists over many years) to assess risk based on an array of cognitive quirks rather than the available evidence. We feel safer driving than flying, for example, despite what the stats show.
Among these quirks is optimism bias, where we think our personal risk is less, relative to other people’s.
Our tendency to downplay risk can be a positive force when it drives us to keep working on difficult tasks. Even when we have a well-judged risk assessment there can be many reasons to chose a high-risk, high-reward path. In their book Vaxxers, Catherine Green and Sarah Gilbert explain how their teams designed and developed Covid-19 vaccines at an unprecedented speed by choosing to proceed “at risk” on many occasions. They began some processes before funding was secured, judging that the risk of slow development was greater than the risk of having to stop a particular piece of work if funding did not emerge.
Similar thought processes were going on across government – emails published this month by the Good Law Project show then-health secretary Matt Hancock telling officials to go “hell for leather” when awarding testing contracts, despite concerns about overriding the usual procurement processes.
Alongside optimism, humans tend to share another bias – hindsight bias – which makes us think things were more inevitable than they really were.
Because of this, people are likely to think differently about the risks taken by Gilbert and Green (weren’t they bound to succeed?) than the risks taken by ministers and officials when working on policies that did not meet the desired outcome (didn’t they realise it was bound to fail?).
There are, of course, many issues to consider when assessing decisions taken around procurement in the early days of Covid, including questions of VIP lanes, cronyism and the impact of austerity on pandemic plans. That’s why a full inquiry is being held – to tease out these issues and unearth lessons that will help future governments in moments of crisis.
"The job of the inquiry is made harder by hindsight bias, which makes us judge past decisions on our current knowledge, even if we think we are simply remembering what 'everyone knew' at the time"
The job of the inquiry is made harder by hindsight bias, which makes us judge past decisions on our current knowledge, even if we think we are simply remembering what “everyone knew” at the time. In late 2021, Professor Christopher Meyer of King’s College London set out some strategies to help unpick this bias and allow meaningful lessons to be learned, including ensuring the inquiry panel had a mix of experts; clear timelines about what was known and when; and which experts were most likely to have been listened to.
Meyer also notes that public inquiries “should not wait until memories are beginning to fade, and public narratives about the meaning of a crisis have consolidated.”
The Covid inquiry is yet to begin in earnest. If this delay means a strong panel and robust terms of reference, that is positive. But in the meantime, details about the early days of the pandemic are already emerging through court cases and news stories and they don’t inspire confidence. As our analyses from two health policy experts show, Matt Hancock seems to be trying to shape a narrative around bad advice and hamstrung ministers, rather than seeking to support a process which might help his successors at the despatch box deal more effectively with crises they will inevitably face.
Read the May issue of CSW here