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Pete Lunn: We need to tackle Covid-19 differently after this lockdown. Here is how

We must get used to acting more slowly, carefully monitoring infections and compliance

A view of Dublin city during the Covid-19 lockdown. Photograph: Tom Honan

For more than one reason this week, it is worthwhile asking: for how long should we dwell on the past? The answer, I think, is that it depends what we are trying to achieve.

If the aim is to uncover truth and get justice and healing, then perhaps we dwell on the past for as long as it takes. But if the aim is to improve things for the future, we need only dwell on the past long enough to learn any important lessons it contains.

Combining recent events with scientific evidence about how people make decisions, I argue here that, as a society, we need to change how we think of the decisions we face in fighting Covid-19. The starting point is the surge in cases, but my aim is to be constructive not to criticise.

Here are four brief facts. First, we made a decision to open up large parts of the economy and society for Christmas. While the Government set the parameters of this, businesses, families and individuals all made decisions with consequences once those parameters were set.


Second, we went substantially further than advised by our public health experts and further than the public (on average) wanted us to go.

Third, we took this risk knowingly; we rolled the dice.

Fourth, the numbers came up ugly.

Perhaps the only upside of the grim case numbers at present is that the surge has led more people to say they want to be vaccinated

The dominant mental model for making these decisions was the idea that we had to balance health outcomes against economic damage – “lives versus livelihoods”. In the end, arguments about the downsides of maintaining restrictions before and during Christmas received more weight than potential health consequences.

This widespread mental model of balancing lives against livelihoods is problematic and that we need to change it. The issue matters, because we will face the same kind of decision again. Once we have endured the pain to flatten this third curve, we will again need to decide how much to restrict our lives.

The vaccine will help. Perhaps the only upside of the grim case numbers at present is that the surge has led more people to say they want to be vaccinated. Yet it will be months before the vaccine becomes our most powerful weapon. Until then, our main defence remains our behaviour.

So what is the problem with viewing the decision as a balance between health outcomes and economic ones?

Humans balance trade-offs every day. We decide how much more we are willing to pay for the treat of a steak instead of everyday pasta. We compare boring time spent clearing up against the pleasure of then sitting in a tidy living room. We weigh one thing against the other, seeking a preferred balance.

The decisions we face over Covid-19 restrictions differ fundamentally from this model of balancing quantities. While the economic losses of keeping businesses closed can be estimated fairly well, Covid-19 infections are extremely uncertain. They are hard to predict accurately, and exponential spread means that they defy intuition, changing dramatically over short periods, with calamitous consequences.

Rather than weighing two things up and trying to strike a balance, a better analogy is driving in dangerous conditions while running late. There is a known cost to lateness, but if you drive too fast and lose control the consequences are lethal.

Similarly, the Covid-19 trade-off is not a balance between economic and health outcomes, but a trade-off between economic costs and risking losing control of the disease. The decisions involved are harder and more complex.

If this sounds theoretical or abstract, let me be concrete. Recent evidence supports the view that countries are not simply trading off economic versus health outcomes. If they were, nations that are slow to impose restrictions would have good economic figures but bad infection numbers, while nations that rapidly tighten restrictions would have the opposite.

Analysis published by the Institute for New Economic Thinking shows that, if anything, countries with high infections have suffered greater economic losses too.

This has happened for two reasons. If you lose control of Covid-19, you end up imposing a lockdown anyway – probably a harsher and longer one. Meanwhile, even if you don’t, people get too scared and stop going out and spending money.

We need to change the mental model and, hence, the conversation. Our challenge is to keep the economy and society going as best we can without losing control over the virus. This perspective has several implications.

Those who cherry-pick evidence and question the legitimacy of our public health experts are behaving like passengers in the back yelling at the driver to go faster

When trying to keep control in a dangerous and unstable situation, you move slowly and watch carefully, waiting for feedback on your latest movement. We need to lift restrictions only when we are sure the virus remains suppressed following previous changes. Given the time-lags involved, this means acting more slowly than in the past, while carefully monitoring not only infections, but behaviour and compliance too.

This also has implications for some commercial lobbying. Returning to the analogy above, those who cherry-pick evidence and question the legitimacy of our public health experts are behaving like passengers in the back yelling at the driver to go faster, complaining that they are going to be late, without themselves being able to feel the road.

Of course we need to understand the economic suffering wrought by this pandemic and be sympathetic to those experiencing it, but constantly risking surges in infections is not the best way to help. If our aim is to do the best we can economically while maintaining control over the virus, where particular sectors are losing out to help us keep that control, we should all take some of the hit to compensate them.

We need to move on – what has happened has happened – but recent events suggest the need to think differently. Mental models are subtle things. They alter what comes to mind when we face decisions and affect the words we use to describe decisions.

In the end, they determine how we decide. We want to make better decisions in 2021.

Prof Pete Lunn is head of the Behavioural Research Unit at the Economic and Social Research Institute and a member of the Covid-19 Communications and Advisory Committee of the Department of Health