Stuart Patrick: Can we reassess risk profile after Omicron wave?

As this year draws to a close, we are repeating the familiar arguments of our Covid-19 response. The emerging data and the inevitable worst-case scenarios have been submitted by our health scientists, the NHS is once more under threat of severe pressure and our governments have struggled to find actions that balance public health and economic harms. Restrictions have been steadily increased and financial support for business announced, with the inadequacies of both fully discussed. To be fair, similar arguments are being rehearsed in different measures all across the planet.

I meet with Chamber members online every Tuesday afternoon to discuss the current circumstances. As you might expect we focus mostly on the consequences for business and the economy and we are finding that there is a mood of growing frustration especially for members in the most affected industries – in travel and transport, hospitality, culture, retail and sport. Business leaders always have to plan ahead and for those struggling with debt and cash-flow difficulties there is a yearning for a clearer Covid-19 plan.

I wonder if that mood is being shared by the wider public. YouGov polling from survey work across the UK on December 14 and 15 suggested that public support for closing bars and restaurants as a response to the variant had dropped to 30 per cent, even though a majority had said they were worried by Omicron’s emergence. Is our attitude to risk changing now that vaccines and boosters are widely distributed? Certainly it seemed that way when nearly two-thirds said they had no intentions of changing their behaviours and a full 80% were not changing their plans for Christmas. The survey’s Scottish figures were only marginally below those averages at 64% and 77% respectively.

For those involved in managing investment portfolios, the concept of risk profiling is very familiar. Clients are asked to rate their risk on a scale from the lowest risk tolerance tending towards guaranteed income and low capital value volatility to the very highest where portfolios are predominantly equities. We already know that individual members of the public will have very different risk attitudes about the Covid-19 crisis and YouGov data show the obvious message that the older are more worried than the younger. And we all know it’s friends and family faced with specific health conditions that demand the lowest risk tolerance.

What happens though when the average risk tolerance for the whole population changes? Professor Chris Whitty had already suggested that was happening when he expressed doubts in late November about the public appetite for accepting further restrictions. It is also notable how much more circumspective the Scottish Government is being in designing its response this time. The damage to business is a much more prominent feature in First Ministerial announcements.

The YouGov data does suggest that as Omicron spreads risk attitudes will adjust. In London, where the variant has become dominant, first survey respondents were much more likely to change behaviours and adjust their Christmas plans. But is this the last season where restrictions will be able to play a prominent role?

With the booster programme advancing quickly and new drugs like Merck’s oral antiviral molnupiravir securing approval, will it be time early next year to review our collective risk profile and consider more deeply whether the time for extensive restrictions is passing?

To date, the argument that we must protect our NHS has been persuasive. It remains important to recognise those pressures but there may come a time when that argument loses its potency and its use becomes counterproductive. Can we publicly reassess our risk profile once the Omicron wave has passed?

Stuart Patrick is chief executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce

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