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When is it safe to go back in the water?

When is it safe to go back in the water?


Many organisational and business heads, regardless of size, are now reviewing and planning when and how to press the restart button and get people back to their work.

To understand the complexity and nuances of the decision-making challenges they face, watch the 1975 thriller Jaws, where a tiger shark threatens beachgoers in Amity, New
England. This is a classic case of public safety, risk management approaches, differing opinions, and economic and reputation issues influencing decision-making.  When the Amity Chief of Police knew the risks outweighed the benefits, he closed the beach.  His decision perfectly illustrates the risk versus risk question that we all face on a daily basis during the coronavirus pandemic.

Risk vs risk

At the most fundamental level, every day we unconsciously undertake a risk vs risk approach when deciding to go outside of the controlled security of our homes.  The risk of going outside is that we might be exposed to and develop COVID-19. This is what many fear most.  There are other risks to our safety too, but these are all automatically built into our reasoning via heuristic thinking, e.g. accident or contracting other ailments.

In the case of obtaining groceries, the consequences of not addressing this is to go hungry, poor diet, or to suffer other health-related issues because of inadequate nutrition and limited exercise. So, we all put controls in place that allow us to manage any risk associated with getting groceries into the household: online shopping, less frequent visits to the shops, shopping for more than one household, and personal protection.

For returning to work, responsibility for the assessment and control of the risks to people transfers to those outside of the home. They also have a legal obligation under Health and Safety legislation to ensure the risks to people are minimised.  Businesses and organisations are currently facing the same question as faced in Jaws:  Is it safe to go back to work?

Consequences of uncertainty

People’s risk perception varies considerably, and this is primarily shaped by their own circumstances, government public information guidance and the news.  The focus of the UK’s daily press briefing from Downing Street is very much on statistics and science. This is where we have a degree of certainty to help shape our perception.  We know how many people have succumbed to COVID-19, and we know the transmission rates.  This is being amplified in society every day.  As a crisis communications strategy, this is not without its critics.

What we see less of, but equally important in shaping our perception of the risk, is what is less certain: what we don’t yet know, and the consequence of uncertainty.  It is beyond the statistics – the factors that create ambiguity and debate. We know we will go hungry without our grocery shopping. The debate in households is how to manage the risks to avoid hunger.  But what are the consequences of uncertainty in the workplace, and what risks are we willing to live with to secure certain defined benefits in our lives and work?

Ambiguity and debate

The headline-grabbing controversy around state-school re-opening between the education profession and the government is a clear example of ambiguity and debate.  The education sector is focusing on the school-opening risk assessment from a public safety perspective; and the probability of cross-infection based on the mountain of certain statistical and evolving public health information. The government is focusing the defined benefits of re-opening from a short, medium and long-term perspective. This is why there is such ambiguity and debate.

In other words, what uncertainties we are willing to live and work with and the risks of both action and inaction. This is missing in the education debate, although it is now starting to emerge.   The Institute of Fiscal Studies recently published research findings: “Learning during the lockdown: real-time data on children’s experiences during home-learning”.  The detailed report provided an insight into the different socio-economic home-learning experiences,  with this conclusion in the executive summary:


Whatever strategy the government pursues for reopening schools, there is a risk that it will increase inequalities. Fewer than half of parents say they would send their child back to school if they had the choice. Higher-income parents report being more willing for their child to go back to school. This risks a situation where the children struggling the most to cope with home-learning remain at home, while their better-off classmates are back in the classroom.”

With the immediate safety concerns leading the debate, the risks and consequences of school lockdown have not been fully discussed.  From an occupational health perspective, a way forward should be sought to avoid the imposition of duties that can risk being unfulfilled, create an impasse or increase longer-term consequential risks.  A tolerability of risk should be established. From a communications perspective, public engagement and debate should be perused and mitigation activities commensurate with the risks should be identified to help find an acceptable way forward.

With businesses, the consequences of uncertainty are a lot starker.  There are more immediate risks to not doing something. Another topical example is the licensed trade.  The consequences of prolonged uncertainty are firmly helping lead the debate: unable to pay rent, staff lay-offs and the impact on supplier and wholesaler businesses.  The trade association UK Hospitality is in regular dialogue with the UK government to debate the issues and find solutions for re-opening the pubs earlier. Leading the debate is Oakman Inns Chief Operating Officer Dermot King.  He recently appeared on Sky News and explained his approach:

Inevitably change is the way that we operate our business…   We have had to re-engineer the customer journey throughout the venue 

Achieving a balance

The complexity of the COVID-19 risks and variance in risk perceptions are driving public opinion in the return-to-work debate.  In order to achieve a balance, it is critical that this debate includes the consequence of risks.  Public safety is, of course, number one, but the consequences of prolonged uncertainty should be fully communicated and included in the debate, particularly those that are irreversible or that will have a negative impact. If not, the risk is to face those consequences in the future – and that includes managing the health, societal, economic and reputational issues that may develop.

So, to use the Jaws metaphor: “When will it be safe to go back in the water?” When you have achieved a balanced approach that all can live with, accepting a level of risk that is managed, appropriately controlled and well communicated.

With thanks to the contributions from to Dr David Slavin.


“Educational gaps are growing during lockdown” https://www.ifs.org.uk/uploads/BN288-Learning-during-the-lockdown-1.pdf

Sky News interview with Oakman Inns Chief Operating Officer Dermot King on 15 May: https://youtu.be/eWaHaIsKWPw


Jaws Wiki page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaws_(film)

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