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Repetition saves lives

Yesterday was a wet day. Bucketing down. I am hoping that this is not going to affect the fruit I look to harvest over the next couple of months.

It was the start of a week which although nominally still seeing Parliament in recess, will see an update statement from the First Minister and, for me, a meeting of the COVID-19 Committee later today. We shall be considering a number of pieces of secondary legislation made under the emergency Acts passed at Holyrood and Westminster. Jeanne Freeman and Michael Russell will be appearing before us as part of the review process that happens for all legislation.

The slow walk away from the most severe restrictions of COVID-19 continues. Later this week herself has a dental appointment, and next week it's hair.

But some people are not quite getting that progress in suppressing this virus continues to depend on social distancing. A delivery driver who was looking for a house whose name I did not recognise tried to march right up to the window I had opened to allow conversation. A shout from me of "stop" had the desired effect. But it took him aback. We were able to converse at a distance of about five metres. Suited me, especially as neither of us was using a face covering.

One pal who has not left the house for many months because of shielding is, like many, feeling uncomfortable about reconnecting with people in the outside world. My close family members who have been in the same position, by contrast, have already taken their first steps out. They are both nurses, and I suspect they may see the advice in a more nuanced way. Aware that knowledge about the disease is incomplete, as is often the case with illness, but confident that they know how to manage the risks.

And there's one of the most misunderstood and misused work in the English language - risk.

It is not simply a word that carries one simple meaning. It addresses the likelihood that something will happen. And includes the effects of it happening.

Most people choose to look at these factors one at a time. And to give unreasonable emphasis to one over the other.

If our starting point is one of concern about something, then our decision-making process will be dominated by the thought of the impact on ourselves if the risk crystalises into an occurrence.

If however, the risk is associated with something we are familiar with, an action we take every day, we are likely to focus on how likely it is to happen.

So most people think little about crossing a busy road but would be reluctant to jump out of an aeroplane wearing an automatically opening parachute.

When did some such jumps in 1975, I happened to write some new life assurance at the same time. My initial form-filling about the risks in my life had told the life assurance company that I was doing some parachuting. That meant that there was one risk that they would not cover.

But it wasn't parachuting that caused any restrictions. I could do as much of that as I wanted, without an additional premium. And if were killed as a result of a jump, the policy would pay out.

On the other hand, if I spent more than twelve hours a year flying in an aircraft, and was killed while doing so, the payment would be reduced.

In other words, it was much more likely that I would die because of flying than because of parachuting.

The company had obviously heard the old grey-beard pilot's saying; "better to be on the ground wishing you were flying than be in the air wishing you were on the ground."

Indeed when I consider the commercial flying I have undertaken in my life, I can see what they mean.

BEA Vanguard G-APEC broke up in mid-air on the 2nd of October 1971. I had flown on the plane the previous day. No one survived

British Midland 737 G-OBME came down on the 8th of January 1989. More than a third of those on board did not survive, and almost all the rest were seriously injured. I had flown in this plane three weeks earlier.

LoftleiĆ°ir DC-8 TF-FLA came down at Colombo in Sri Lanka on the 15th of November 1978 without survivors. In this case, five years after I flew in it.

Air India 747 VT-EFO was blown up in flight by terrorists on the 23rd of June 1985. I had flown this in 1977.

And these are only the ones I can be sure about. Yet there are queues of people waiting to fly off on holiday.

Actually, I have escaped being impacted by aircraft accident, although I have had to deplane in a hurry a couple of times. My track record says more about my having flown on more than a hundred different airlines over 50 years. I reckon that's well over two thousand flights.

Crossing that busy road remains one of the more dangerous things I do from time to time. I do no risk assessment before stepping off the pavement. Because truly familiarity has bred in me a contempt for the objective risk of doing so.

But thinking about risk also involves thinking about numbers.

A face covering, otherwise, a "mask", reduces the risk of my infecting someone else by 90%. But I can internalise the risk, likely without any actual thought, as being nil. Because I "know" I am well. And the 30% reduction in the risk to me sounds quite small, doesn't it?

That discussion assumes most people know what a percentage means. That's far from a safe assumption.

Suppose we have two numbers - twenty and forty. Forty is a hundred per cent more than twenty. But twenty is fifty per cent less than forty.

So the gap between twenty and forty can correctly be described as 50% or as 100%. Both are correct. One can begin to see how people can get confused.

Most risks are expressed in percentages. But almost always are being used to describe a change in the likelihood of something happening. As a persuasive tool that simply doesn't help if the person to whom the argument is addressed is more worried about the effects of an incident.

That's why we need to be repetitive, constantly appearing on TV screens to reinforce key messages. Because people hear and understand words. Numbers are much more difficult for many.

Are those who want us to abandon TV briefings listening?

For vital pandemic messages, the road to success is simple. It is:

Repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat.

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