Taking risks cautiously: a personal reflection.

This weekly blog is a day later than normal. I spent yesterday cutting a hedge or to be more accurate doing the manual labour when my suitably qualified and certificated brother used two vicious large petrol hedge cutters! This happens about twice a year – it is a big hedge! Conditions were not ideal – a sharp wind and not so occasional showers but the job is now completed  – even the tidying! Only when I put the machines away do I realise what dangerous and risky pieces of machinery they are.

I have been thinking a lot about risk in the last couple of days. Risk is part and parcel of everyday living. There is no context which is completely risk free. The way in which we grow from children into adults usually teaches us how to manage and deal with risks, having been protected from them as children to a greater or lesser extent. We learn strategies for dealing with risk, we develop models and systems and we fashion an internal risk management system! For there is, in reality, no such thing as total safety but rather there are degrees of safety and levels of risk. Risk is therefore a given of human living and relationships.

It is also a truism that risk is highly personal. I may make judgements and undertake activities and consider them normal and safe e.g. going skiing or mountain climbing but another person may consider those to be highly risky and never to be touched.

The influencers on how we manage our approach to risk are numerous. The way we have been brought up, the extent to which we have taken risks and things have worked out well, the impact of our behaviour upon others, especially those who are important to us – all are factors which influence our approach to risk. But by in large, part of adulthood is that we develop strategies that enable us to have a healthy approach to risk and to develop an acceptance that safety is often illusory and subjective.

Life is all about risk and risk is all about relationship. As someone who worked in both child and adult protection and having trained hundreds of staff in safeguarding I have always been acutely aware of how important it is to get the management of risk right. The failure to analyse and assess, to take action, to guard and protect can be literally a matter of life and death. But equally there are dangers of over-protection and risk avoidance which can result in care and support which suffocates with kindness and which serves to limit individual autonomy and personal control.

In conversation last week with colleagues from around the United Kingdom I reflected that where we are now in our current response to Covid is all about risk management. How we manage the obvious risks around us and the decisions we make and take will have a profound impact on the way we control the disease and also the nature of the communities and societies we are forming in that response. But whilst risk may frequently be an individual decision and action, it is influenced by and in turn affects relationships. I can make and take decisions which are appropriate for myself but when those decisions are impacting upon others or are made on behalf of another for whatever reason then the management of risk needs to be forensically examined and transparently justified.

The debate which is for so many of us the most critical and crucial discussion we are having these days is how do we improve and increase the access to care homes to allow families to get back together. In essence that debate is all about risk and how we manage risk. It is far from an easy consideration, in fact it is heart-breaking.

Yesterday’s Big Interview in ‘The Times’  newspaper was on Prof Sir David Spiegelhalter from Cambridge University, who has impressed me every time I have seen him on television during the last few months. But he is also someone whose work I have known for some time because he is an ‘expert on risk.’

Spiegelhalter a long time before the pandemic said:

 “The media want to make things exciting and usually alarming, so there’s a tendency to present figures in a way that makes them look dramatic, and we should be able to take these stories apart…it’s important that it’s not just left to the very senior people to draw attention to the misuse of evidence or statistics.”

And how true has that been in the last few months! –  don’t we all know the truth of the deception of statistics and the perversion of data.

In his book, The Art of Statistics,  Spiegelhalter argues that there is an onus on scientists like him to explain risk to the general public in a way that achieves the appropriate balance between informing and causing alarm. He appreciates that we all understand risk in  an often very individual way and even two scientists looking at the same data may come up with a diverse interpretation because of the moral paradigm of risk that they are working with.

At the present time we are witnessing an alarming increase in daily cases in Scotland in no small part generated by the risks which those of a younger age have taken around house gatherings and behaviours in hospitality settings. There are so many ways in which I can understand their behaviour. The data seems on the surface to present the risk of Covid to them as one which is relatively low and so the accompanying warnings that it is still a virus that can result in crippling long-term damage to young people are not heard. What dominates is the desire to get back to normality, to live life to the fullest, to reconnect and to enjoy. All perfectly understandable. But as Spiegelhalter states:

“The point is that risk is not just risk to yourself it’s risk to others as well,”

The challenge is, in part, that our understanding of risk as a younger person is palpably different from risk as we deal with it when we are older. At times I think the psychology of our public messaging has failed to appreciate that risk really does feel different dependant on the age you happen to be. So rather than an emphasis on risk the narrative should rather focus on our mutual responsibility one to the other not in order to ‘guilt out’ folks but in order to tap into the altruism and humanity which so many showed during the depth of the pandemic in the spring. For me in the last few weeks the biggest impact on local lockdowns has been on our older population and especially those families prevented from visiting residents in care homes which have had to close to indoor visiting just as they were beginning to open up. Individual actions can lead to a real desolation for others at this time perhaps to a degree that individual risk-taking has never impacted on others before. But I am not convinced those taking ‘risks’ truly understand the consequences upon others.

When we consider the issue of care homes I think we are getting to the heart of the risk debate that many of us are daily struggling with. The continual debate I have with clinicians and advisors is how do we get the balance right between protecting people from the virus and enabling them to have a quality of life which is enhanced by contact with their families and the wider community.

Spiegelhalter states:

“This whole crisis has turned into an issue of risk management. That means perpetually a balance of potential harms and benefits. There’s no such thing as safe, there’s no such thing as right or wrong. Everyone has to carry out that balancing act.”

As we move into winter and face the challenges of weather and potential increased instances of lockdown we need to find a better risk balance to enable people to be reconnected. I think we can learn some lessons from the world of safeguarding as we pursue that balance. At times I fear that maybe not surprisingly during a pandemic we have become automatically risk avoidant rather than risk enabling. We need to correct that imbalance.

In ‘normal’ times in health and social care a traditional risk aversion approach has gradually been replaced in the last few years with talk about enabling risk, and with the development of new models and ways of working which enable individuals to re-develop strategies for risk-talking and managing risk even in situations and contexts where familiar securities are no longer there, such as post illness or with declining capacity.

A major Department of Health consultation ‘No Secrets’ examined their approach to adult safeguarding and risk, and stated:

‘A balance needs to be established between empowerment and protection and between the rights for self-determination and the duty to ensure safety of people… We want to support people to be citizens and take risks that they understand. ‘

Good adult protection and safeguarding is about balancing risk. We all live within environments which are not risk neutral, but we have developed the skills and tactics to minimise, control and live in the face of such risks. That is part and parcel of what good support should be.

Risk enablement is about proportionality. It’s about nurturing within those who might be more vulnerable the insights and abilities which enable us to live in the world.

During a pandemic and especially now it is as we struggle to get a better and more proportionate balance between risk avoidance and risk enablement that I think we need to appreciate that for those who are at the end stages of their lives that seeing family, being able to be held, being together  – all with appropriate protection – trumps an approach to  risk which is in danger of adding to the number of days lived but diminishing the quality of those hours to a point at which they cease to have any real value. There really is more to life than chronology; more to our life than mere existence. There are no easy answers but simply asserting data and science as the sole predicators for decision-taking on risk is no longer sufficient or responsible, not least as it fails to value the rights of individuals.

I will let Spiegelhalter have the last word:

“Experts aren’t always right, they disagree, scientific disagreement is an integral part of science. When I hear a politician saying, ‘We are following the science’, that is when I start screaming at the radio. You do not follow science because it doesn’t tell you what to do. It is sitting there beside you humming and hawing.”

Dr Donald Macaskill