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A Different Kind of Risk Assessment

In the latest edition of the newsletter that is circulated to the leaders of schools in the Dukes Education group, Aatif Hassan highlighted a fitting analogy about where we find ourselves at the moment, likening the situation in response to Covid-19 as being one where we have slipped on ice but have not yet hit the pavement, leaving us caught in a suspended state between losing control and feeling the full impact. 

 He went on to say that the comparison points to a paradoxical tension that leaders must manage between providing direction, guidance and reassurance while acknowledging that the way ahead is not clear.  As the American admiral Arthur Radford put it, ‘A decision is the action an executive must take when he has information so incomplete that the answer does not suggest itself.’ 

Much of what we need to do now involves the assessment and management of risk.  Unfortunately, it is not something we are very good at doing, despite all the practice we are given with the need for the regular completion of formal risk assessment processes.  As one of the managing directors of Dukes, Tim Fish, highlighted in the same newsletter, we are usually more fearful of flying than we are of road travel, despite deaths per mile from road travel being many times greater.  And when we are now being urged to cycle to work, rather using public transport, Tim pointed out that he could not help wondering how the risk of catching the virus on the tube might compare with the dangers of inexperienced cyclists taking to London’s busy roads. 

I can certainly relate in particular to this last point because the closest I have come to a serious situation in the last few weeks is when I stepped into the road to avoid yet another jogger who had no intention of changing course and I was nearly taken out by a cyclist who was travelling at quite a speed.  If I had taken one more sideways step, I dread to think how badly it could have ended for both the cyclist and me. 

There are very few times in life when we can experience moments that are entirely free of risk.  A dictionary definition of safety might talk about being protected from or not exposed to danger or risk, but life would not be possible if we are not prepared to accept some level of threat as we go about living it.  From horse riding to rock climbing, from rugby to a trip to the seaside, everything involves elements of danger.  To be safe, therefore, is not to experience no risk at all, but rather to be aware of what is at stake, to mitigate against it as much as possible and to accept that perfection is not achievable.

One of the issues I am struggling with at the moment is that I do not really feel frightened anymore.  From what I can recall of events at the end of March, it was a time of genuine anxiety.  I knew something very nasty was heading our way, but I did not know the extent of what might be about to happen.  I was concerned for myself, my family and the people in my care at school.  During the first weekend after the school building was closed, I had a period of considerable anxiety for about 36 hours when I was playing out some worst-case scenarios in my head in a particularly unhealthy way.  

As I look around now, we have children back in school who are getting on with things remarkably well.  If they have any fears or concerns, they look to be dealing with them without undue difficulty.  Likewise, the adults may have started the week with some anxieties, but we are already much more relaxed and able to get on with what needs to be done.  Most of us, I think, are wondering why on earth we are not allowed to have lots more children back in the building. 

We are all still of course social distancing as best we can and I am steering clear of close contact with other people as much as possible, particularly in the supermarket, despite the determination everyone seems to have to break the boundaries.  Nevertheless, there is a part of me that increasingly thinks we are being unnecessarily overcautious.  While infection rates and the daily death toll have not fallen to a point where there is any room for complacency, it feels more and more difficult to experience so many disruptions to normal life when the current level of danger seems so much lower than it was a few weeks ago.  This could, of course, all change very quickly, so I am certainly not going to be the one protesting that my individual liberties are more important that the common good, but it feels like this is a thought that will continue to develop in the coming weeks. 

The challenge now, with this pandemic likely to be with us for a while yet, is that we are going to have to evaluate new risks on a more regular basis. It is going to be particularly difficult because the virus is a danger that we cannot see, over which we have very little, if any, control and about which we still seem to have so little information.  It may well be the case that we will have to adapt our thinking to allow us to reach a point where we learn to accept a higher degree of risk, and thereby begin to recalibrate our own ideas of safety.  However, with a first step this week towards a more normal situation, we can at least begin to change the conversation from ‘Can we?’ to ‘How will we?’, which feels like a very positive move in the right direction. 

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