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Living with risk

MDX academic says risk elimination in public life is not sensible and potentially increases danger

David Ball, Professor of Risk Management in the Faculty of Science and Technology at Middlesex, has completed two reports on risk.

The first on Covid-19 and children’s play. This report was commissioned by the UK Play Safety Forum and may have contributed to the recent opening up of outdoor playgrounds in the UK having been widely circulated within the devolved governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales as well as England.

The second, was a major report on ‘The principles of risk management’ by a team of international risk experts convened by Professor Ball and Associate Professor John Watt on behalf of the European Institute for Science, Media and Democracy.

“Our report on the principles of risk management was published in December 2019 and was very timely considering the Covid-19 crisis which broke days after. What is clear is that it is impossible to eliminate risk in society and what is important is to bring together key groups to determine the best way forward.”  Professor Ball, Middlesex University

All stakeholders, and perhaps especially the public, should acknowledge that sustainable management of complex public risk is always going to be a matter of judgement and as such decisions about what to do may be risk-informed but not risk-led. Such judgements will always face challenges of uncertainty and controversy and, while there are legitimate questions to be asked about who should make the decision and the effectiveness of their chosen approaches, it is central that decision makers receive a clear mandate and appropriate political support and trust.

In terms of children playing outdoors during lockdown the benefits outweighed the risks argues Professor Ball. His report was written partly to counter myths and misinformation but also to support more rational, evidence-informed decision making.

Professor Ball says the benefits to children of playing outside bring a host of social, emotional and physical rewards which are essential for development. These have long been undervalued and during the pandemic were being completely ignored and consequently, children were suffering harm.

While Professor Ball acknowledges that it is positive that playgrounds were opened on 4 July he questions the rationale for closing them in the first place arguing that the evidence is that the risks posed by Covid-19 to children playing in outdoor spaces is very low and that proportionate decision making requires that trade-offs between the risks and benefits of safety interventions are part of the decision process. The evidence is that current UK policy was much more harmful to children than beneficial, he says.

The report on risk management puts forward ten principles for managing risk:

1. Risk decision making involves more than numbers.

2. The concept of reasonableness must underpin all decisions.

3. There is an inextricable ethical dimension to risk decision making.

4. Risk elimination in public life is rarely sensible and potentially increases danger.

5. Risk communication should be integral to risk management activity.

6. It is necessary that policy makers examine the appropriateness of attempts to alter people’s behaviour.

7. Approaches to risk management must address the issue of trust in institutions.

8. Consideration should be given to participative (citizen) approaches to decision making and management of risk.

9. Risk literacy can be improved

10. The role of vested interests should be made more transparent.

Professor Ball concludes:  “All approaches to risk are provisional and are based upon currently available evidence and prevailing social mores. The concerns raised are not isolated to the world of risk and its management but are connected to dynamic contemporary issues in a world grappling with social media, ‘fake news’ and populist politics (an era of ‘contextual noise’). Equipping all people with the tools to distinguish better from worse information – and insisting that we trust their capacity to do so – has never been more imperative.”

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