COST benefit analysis is the bedrock of any competent business decision-making, as everyone who watches Dragons’ Den or is studying for the most basic business studies qualification knows. No serious business would consider making any significant change without a detailed assessment of the pros and cons.
There are numerous well-established ways to review the business sense of making change A or change B or sticking with the status quo. The most common method is to use ‘decision trees’. These can be simple or complex but they all involve analysing a mix of evidence (we know that this is the case) and speculation (we know that if we do A then X and Y may happen, with some degree of certainty).
In business, decision trees are often used in ‘what if?’ analyses, for example ‘what if we merge the business?’ or ‘what if we increase the workforce?’ To assess the possibilities, the business analyst draws up a range of options along branches in a flow chart, always in response to a clear question. For example, ‘should we develop a new product or consolidate?’
In this case the initial node would branch into two tracks, ‘new product’ and ‘consolidate’. Each of these would branch further dependent on the options under consideration – perhaps ‘thorough development’ and ‘rapid development’ on the ‘new product’ branch and ‘strengthen product’ and ‘reap product’ along the ‘consolidate’ line. These options would then be given a rating for likely success and their economic value predicted given possible ‘good’, ‘moderate’ and ‘poor’ outcomes.
Technical detail aside, some sort of balanced assessment of the knowns, probables, possibles and unknowns of any business decision is essential. There is no guarantee that any assessment will be accurate but at least some costs and benefits of any change will be predictable and must be included in any competent analysis of a proposed action.
Locking down society is a case in point. We know there is a virus in circulation which affects some people badly but is mild or insignificant for most. We suspect but do not know for sure that restricting social interactions will reduce the transmission of the virus. We know the consequences of curtailing normal activities. These and other considerations could be included in a simple decision tree asking the question: ‘Should we lock down again?
We know one cost with certainty: if people are prevented from working, they will suffer negative consequences. This is happening right now, to many thousands of us, as reported by Indeed, the world’s leading jobs site.
Indeed analysed hundreds of thousands of jobs advertised across its platform to identify which sectors are suffering the biggest drop in hiring, and found that the number of UK jobs posted is 36 per cent down on the previous year’s trend, and the gap is widening.
Declines are sharpest in sectors forced into a ‘stop-start’ pattern of closure, reopening and closure by lockdown restrictions – with fitness and beauty businesses the hardest hit.
The largest fall has been in sports jobs. Sports coaches and fitness instructors, usually so full of vitality and optimism, have been forced to stop work yet again.
These are real people, real traumas. Mostly young lives and careers thrown into turmoil by a desperately narrow-minded view of public health, implemented by people unable or unwilling to think beyond models of disease.
Despite the smug certainties of medics and scientists instantly out of their depth as soon as they step beyond their speculative statistics, public health is not just about controlling disease.
Health is about living. A healthy person can achieve a range of potentials, physical and mental. A healthy society is one that enables its people to flourish. Disease is but one obstacle to health, and not necessarily the biggest. Obsession with disease, when it becomes so unbalanced, can be detrimental to public health, damaging whole lives, not just the parts you can measure. Poverty, anxiety, desperation, anger, sleeplessness, depression – all of this can affect our lives just as much or more than a clinical condition.
Government has a fundamental ethical and legal responsibility to protect the well-being of its citizens in a balanced way. Focusing on just one factor is unbelievably negligent. If its advisers are not competent to juggle different kinds of factors to devise balanced policies that minimise harm and maximise opportunity, the government has a duty to replace them, or indeed itself.
The UK government must conduct itself as a responsible business, which means not spending our money recklessly, carefully assessing the foreseeable consequences of its actions, and using reasonable extrapolations for more distant effects. On any conceivable understanding of business competence, not to include costs to employment, job security, life opportunity and the economy is inexcusable. Government has a duty to think things through properly, and when it comes to the massive decisions it has made over the past months it has to be able to justify them to industry standard, as would any other business.
Like every one of us, equal under law, the government is bound by a basic legal principle. It and its ministers must act at the level of a competent practitioner. If I drive badly or erect a handrail that is not fit for purpose, it doesn’t matter what my excuse is. In law I must do what a reasonably prudent person would do, even if I am an amateur, or else be subject to action in negligence.
It is quite plain that lockdown is not fit for any positive public health purpose.
The government is not above the law. Sooner or later it will be held accountable for the dreadful, avoidable damage it has done to so many of us.