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Pandemic Of Panic: The Great Volcanic Shutdown Was The Price We Pay For A Society That Overreacts To Any Risk

Pandemic Of Panic: The Great Volcanic Shutdown Was The Price We Pay For A Society That Overreacts To Any Risk

smoke and steam rises from the volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in Iceland

Well, was it worth it? The six-day shutdown of most of Europe’s and all Britain’s airports is estimated to have cost the airline industry at least £1.2 billion. Millions of people have suffered expense, inconvenience and even distress rescuing themselves from faraway places.

But doubt persists about whether the danger posed by Iceland’s volcanic ash cloud justified the drastic response.

Scientist Dr Grant Allen, of Manchester University’s Centre for Atmospheric Science, uses words of evasion that are almost self-parodying: ‘Analysis of these atmospheric measurements is early and still ongoing and being supplemented with new measurements all the time.’

In short, he hasn’t a clue.

Eruption: The Iceland volcano caused travel chaos

Nor have the rest of us – because these are issues beyond our competence. The image of a huge jet’s engines suffering multiple failure because they are clogged with superfine silicates, plunging several hundred people to their deaths, is horrendous.

If such an accident had happened, there would have been savage recriminations against all those in charge. Thus, the air traffic control authorities shut down western Europe’s air transport system for much longer than Al Qaeda contrived to after 9/11.

In the 21st century, ever more information becomes available to mankind.

Perversely, however, we are growing worse and worse at weighing risk. Governments and institutions become vulnerable to the clamour of lobbies, fallout from high-profile misfortunes and a perceived political need to respond to public sentiment. lobbies and enforcement authorities, of which Britain’s Health and Safety executive (HSE) is the most notorious, operate on the assumption that increasing public safety is an absolute good.

Yet every step we take to reduce danger bears a cost in cash, efficiency and personal liberty. Not long ago, after an accident involving a falling tree, the National Trust feared that the HSE would force it to fence every tree on its properties. Only fierce argument, and indeed ridicule, obliged the executive to retreat.

Today, under pressure from road safety lobbies, the government is threatening to cut nationwide speed limits and reduce the alcohol tolerance threshold you’re allowed drive at to nil.

Some 2,500 people die each year on the roads. Such action would probably achieve a small reduction. Yet, if we think as adults and assess this statistic in context, we should acknowledge that Britain’s roads are already among the safest in the world.

Cars are inherently dangerous machines and will always impose some perils. But large numbers of people injure and even kill themselves in all manner of everyday circumstances. Some us believe that further curbs on drivers will be disproportionate to the gains they would achieve.

Extravagant responses to risk are a bane of our times. In 1988, health minister Edwina Currie almost destroyed Britain’s egg industry when she said that salmonella in eggs might cause a human catastrophe – only for it to be later discovered that salmonella could not get into eggs.

In 1996, Britain spent £7 billion killing millions of the nation’s cows in response to the alleged threat of CJD killing humans eating burgers made from cattle infected by BSE. We now know that the likelihood of this was almost infinitesimally slight.

In 2009, the government spent £1 billion on unneeded vaccines against swine flu, which we were told might kill half a million people. The SARS virus, said some ‘experts’, could prove more devastating to humanity than Aids. It was once suggested that bird flu might kill 150 million people worldwide.

Back to transport. After 9/11, many Americans were reluctant to fly, so drove to their destinations instead. One statistical analysis suggests that 2,500 extra road deaths ensued. Flying would have been much safer.

The British are grotesquely sensitive to rail accidents, though figure show that train travel is by far the safest means of going anywhere.

Passengers queue at terminal three at Heathrow Airport yesterday after the skies reopened after almost a week

Passengers queue at terminal three at Heathrow Airport

After the Ladbroke Grove rail smash, in which 31 people died, a new Train Protection and Warning System was installed throughout the system. It has been estimated that each life thus saved has cost £15.4 million.

We are in danger of emasculating the armed forces we claim to love so much, by extending Health and Safety protection to the battlefield. I have no doubt that the coroners who preside at inquests on soldiers killed in Afghanistan are compassionate men. But senior officers regard them as a menace to the Services’ real interests.

Most seem not to comprehend the unique stresses and problems of combat zones, where very young men with lethal weapons are invited to make split-second decisions.

Where bankers’ idiocies cost mere money, mistakes in wars cost lives – as every sensible soldier recognises.

No army in the world has ever been perfectly equipped to face every situation. Unless there is clear evidence of institutional failure or genuinely culpable negligence, soldiers who make mistakes deserve the benefit of doubt – and seldom get this from British coroners.

Here in Britain, we are heading towards big trouble about the need to ration free NHS treatments. No political party in this election dares to face the issue, but it is real enough. At a price, medical science can now do amazing things to keep us all alive. But there has to be some measurement of cost against relative benefit to save the NHS from bankruptcy.

The National Institute for Clinical excellence believes that a treatment ceases to be economical if it costs more than £20,000 per estimated year of quality-adjusted life saved. I bet that some lobbyist or vulture lawyer will soon challenge this principle.

Of course, it sounds harsh. But it is clearly necessary for some responsible body to make such judgments about proportionality to save the exchequer from an even worse financial catastrophe than we face already.

The media inevitably highlights personal tragedies, but often bears a responsibility for failing to promote rational assessments of peril. When John Major was prime minister, four teenage canoeists died in a tragic outdoor centre accident. In its wake, draconian new regulations were introduced for the control of such courses.

I was a newspaper editor at the time and I suggested to Major that these measures were over the top. They threatened to curb people’s yearn for adventure, which must always involve a degree of risk.

He answered: ‘ What would your trade say, Max, if we failed to act and there was another bad accident?’ There are moments when politicians deserve sympathy, and that was one. The volcanic ash drama is another.

Ministers are bound to defer to the supposed experts. If the safety authorities claim a risk exists, no sane politician overrules them.

David Cameron claims to be committed to curbing the excesses of the HSE. Good for him. But I shall be pleasantly surprised if much changes if he gets to Downing Street.

No minister – Tory, Labour or lib Dem – readily defies those who invoke the sacred principle of making us safer. We have become an almost insanely risk-averse society, demanding to be babied from cradle to grave.

The great volcanic ash air shutdown is part of the price we pay for this. Until, as a society, we learn to measure risk realistically, we shall continue to face draconian responses to even marginal threats.



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