Decisions must truly be based on science to strike the balance between lives and livelihoods, says former Disney executive Hugh Wood, owner of Hugh Wood Consulting

Covid-19 has changed our way of life – temporarily, we all hope. It’s already been responsible for the deaths of at least 36,000 people in the UK, and probably closer to 50,000. Each is a tragedy for a family. I worry for my 85-year-old mum, in sheltered accommodation.

And its wreaking havoc across travel, leisure and hospitality – the industries I’ve worked in for most of the last 25 years.

At least the NHS avoided a collapse like Lombardy’s. The Excel centre Nightingale, hopefully back to normal in time for WTM, treated only 54 patients before being mothballed. The Nightingales in Birmingham, Bristol and Harrogate treated none at all. That’s not to say they shouldn’t have been built, or to downplay the massive stress NHS staff have been under. But that rationale for full lockdown has, for now, abated.

Until a vaccine is available the economy cannot be revived without some risk. Can we contemplate lockdown for another 12-18 months? I don’t think so. What is really going to be different to mean schools can open in September? Not much.

So how to make the grim decisions ahead? I certainly don’t envy those making them.

An analysis recently showed the death rates from Covid of NHS staff has actually been very similar to the overall population’s. That takes nothing away from the bravery of NHS workers, who didn’t know what risks they ran. But what fascinated me was how little coverage it got. Media outlets that ran countless stories on the tragic cases of NHS workers and issues with PPE gave it very little space, if they mentioned it at all.

Why? Because it felt out of kilter with the national mood? Disrepectful? Wouldn’t sell papers? If any of these, it’s very dangerous.

Data is key

Because the hard decisions ahead must be made on data, not emotion, not popularity, and certainly not the media. Difficult for politicians, who fear being labelled callous. Or for businesspeople, who may be denounced as placing profit before lives. I’m a little fearful of reactions to this – but that’s why I think I need to say it. Whenever you have groupthink, you have bad decisions.

We can say ‘life matters more than money’, but reality is annoyingly complicated. A healthy NHS requires a healthy economy for the taxes to pay for it. Several thousand may have died from heart attacks and strokes by not visiting hospital, either through fear of Covid or feeling a duty not to go. Others will die because of cancelled operations.

I volunteer for Childline, which has seen a surge in calls from children trapped in abusive situations. Recession will cause mental and physical health problems for adults too, overwhelmingly for the less well-off. Children missing half a year of education matters.

But all of that is so much less visible, and measurable, than that remorseless daily Covid death toll.

The way we’re wired means we overestimate the risks we hear and see – what’s newsworthy. A classic example is over estimating the risk of a shark attack, when we’re twice as likely to be killed by a falling coconut! We know about Covid’s death toll, the bias to men, to BAME, and the older. But I was amazed when I looked at NHS data that of the 22,000 tragic deaths recorded in English and Welsh hospitals at that point, only 31 were people under the age of 40 without existing health issues, and less than 250 when including 40-59 year olds. It hasn’t ‘felt’ like that.

Many parents now fear their children returning to school. The infection to mortality ratio for 0-19 year olds is around 0.004%, or 1 in 25,000 of those infected. That’s similar to the risk of dying in a road accident in any given year – the school run may be as dangerous. Around a thousand people die falling down their stairs each year. Everything involves some level of risk.

So let’s hope our leaders really do make decisions on ‘the science’, weighing all these factors up and seeing the risks as they are, as they try to find that balance between lives and livelihoods.