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7 April 2020updated 28 Jul 2021 7:59am

How coronavirus has led to the return of the precautionary principle

The pandemic is showing the value of caution as a guiding influence in government.  

By Harry Eyres

In the 1970s and 80s, German lawyers and lawmakers began to discuss the principle of vorsorge (foresight) – the adoption by decision-makers of precautionary measures when scientific evidence about an environmental or health hazard is uncertain, and the stakes are high. The principle was formally introduced in a 1984 German Federal Government report to the Bundestag, and its influence grew. In 1992, it was incorporated into both the UN Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and the Maastricht Treaty.

For years, this principle has been under attack, especially from influential right-wing think tanks close to governments in London and Washington, such as the Legatum Institute and The Heritage Foundation. The charge goes like this: the precautionary principle (PP) is anti-scientific; it implies the stifling of necessary risk-taking and, brought to its logical extreme, complete paralysis. Even greater dangers, harms and costs can be incurred by the failure to take risks. To put it more crudely, it is a perfect example of the pro-regulatory, anti-free enterprise dogma that many feel dominates thinking in Brussels.

This concerted attack has been pretty successful. Although the PP is enshrined in Article 191 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, and applied in fields as diverse as health protection, biodiversity management and emerging technologies, there has been little discussion of it recently, even in the context of Brexit – where one might have assumed it would loom large. It constitutes one of the main dividing lines between EU and US approaches to health and environmental regulation, including the different approaches to genetically modified crops and neonicotinoid pesticides.

But Covid-19 has provided a moment of opportunity for the PP. It resurfaced last month in a Guardian article by academics Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Yaneer Bar-Yamm, in which they “called for a simple exercise of the precautionary principle in a domain where it mattered: interconnected complex systems have some attributes that allow some things to cascade out of control, delivering extreme outcomes”. Rather than making decisions using complex models based on untested assumptions, they argued, the UK government should have acted with simplicity and robustness. People do not stop to consider possible responses to an avalanche; they simply get out of its way.

This metaphor captures both the strengths and the apparent imprecision of the PP. It can be summed up in the classical wisdom of the Hippocratic oath, “first do no harm”, or a folk nostrum such as “better safe than sorry.” Maybe it is better to talk about precautionary principles, or a precautionary approach, than a single principle, which theorists have struggled to define. These questions have spawned a vast academic literature.

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But what is fundamentally right and useful – and also radical – about the PP? What does a precautionary approach to the coronavirus crisis look like, and which countries have adopted it?

First comes a speedy acknowledgement of the potential gravity of the threat, even before knowing precisely how many people might be infected and become seriously ill. This was the approach taken in a number of east Asian countries and territories: Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and (after the initial, perhaps fatal, attempt to suppress news of the virus) China. All of these states had learned from their experience of Sars in the early 2000s. The steps taken – rapid and extensive testing, contact tracing and isolation, social distancing and caution (in Taiwan’s capital Taipei, the metro has been a sea of masks since February) – were already prepared and proven. Part of the precautionary approach is simply being prepared for a disaster which is quite likely to strike. No government could say it hadn’t been warned about a coming pandemic.

Quite the opposite approach was taken in the UK, US (and, among other countries, Brazil). There was an astonishing lack of preparedness in relation to testing and even essential medical kit. Even when the first cases occurred in both countries, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson were inclined to procrastinate and play down the threat. As recently as late March Trump suggested the US could be “opened up, and just raring to go, by Easter”. The British government, despite claiming to be guided by “the science”, issued unclear messages regarding social distancing. It was extremely slow to implement testing at scale. It was suggested that policy was being guided by the goal of “herd immunity”, and also by “nudge theory”, promoted by the former Nudge Unit within the Cabinet Office, now the privatised Behavioural Insights Team.

The UK approach was not precautionary; it relied on theories never tested in the context of a major public health emergency, rather than robust, practical measures proven to be effective (and recommended by the WHO). Taleb and Bar-Yam also discerned the influence of Dominic Cummings, with his faith in “scientism” rather than science, and, it appears, a belief that most problems can be solved by algorithms. Behind all this lurks a failure to decide whether the primary role of the state is to protect its citizens (the precautionary approach) or to promote their economic chances.

While the PP has been closely associated with the EU since it first emerged in Germany and is enshrined in EU treaties, EU countries have had a mixed record in dealing with Covid-19. Italy and Spain currently, and tragically, have the highest death tolls in the world. Germany has fared far better. Aggressive testing and a high provision of nurses per 1,000 citizens are two likely contributing factors.

If the PP is being assayed in the crucible of Covid-19, other tests are approaching. When Brexit negotiations resume, the UK may belatedly realise what the value of the PP might have been, if only it had listened to different experts. The same lesson will apply to climate change, only with results that are more far-reaching, and more permanent.

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