The danger of an overactive hindsight

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Remember back in July when the Government announced that England was coming out of the final stages of lockdown without any further mitigations. There were a whole host of people lining up to denounce the unethical recklessness of this.  We were given apocalyptic warnings of England being a plague nation with the hospitals jam packed and many more deaths at the hands of butcher Boris.

In fact, cases came down drastically and whilst we saw spikes in cases when the schools went back, as Universities returned and then into the early winter, these were primarily caused by the virus circulating amongst the unvaccinated younger population so that hospitalisations remained low.  What we have seen, is that the % of admissions has reduced to 1.8% and deaths to 0.25%. At the end of November, cases had begun to fall and with vaccination and natural immunity having an effect in schools I think we could have reasonably seen that to continue all the way to the New Year. 

I think it would have been reasonable to predict a scenario where cases would be dropping below 30,000, admissions down to 500 a day and deaths well below a 100 over the next few weeks. All the evidence suggests that the decision to go through with stage 4 re-opening was not a reckless immoral decision but actually perfectly timed and whilst some of us may have preferred some changes, whether ongoing school bubbles or more rapid vaccination of adolescents, it clearly wasn’t a terrible, immoral experiment. The people who were quick to make those accusations made them not only in effect against Boris but against the scientists on SAGE and indeed anyone who agreed with the decision. In fact, there were times when some went so far as effectly accusing the UKHSA of falsifying data. At no point have I seen anyone apologise or correct their position. In Fact hat happened was that the goalposts kept getting moved so that new reasons as to why restrictions were needed were created.

At the moment, we find ourselves in a different position to where we expected or wanted to be. Omicron means that cases are rapidly increasing and there is a real risk that this will put significant strain on health services. Over the past few weeks I’ve started to see people claiming that this justifies their accusations in July of recklessness and that they effectively predicted this. Well, whilst some people raised the possibility of a significant variant and this included people that supported relaxation in July, it needs saying clearly. No, they did not predict that as a result of July the 19th, we would see a variant discovered on a completely different continent, in a country where at the time case numbers were low. Nor was it predicted that in such a situation it would take root quickly here. And incidentally, nor were they able to tell us what the actual impact of that would be in terms of hospital admissions and deaths because even right now we still don’t know.

You see, what people are doing is reading back from what we know now onto past decisions, inventing cause and effect and claiming to have prophesied something they did not.

Now, it’s not just been left to one side of the COVID debate to read back today’s situation on the past. Those from the other side have jumped on comments from the head of SAGE about how scenarios were modelled to read back onto past situations an argument that the worst case scenario warnings of catastrophe were one sided and politically motivated. Apart from the misunderstanding of how scenario modelling works that I’ve previously pointed out, this also erases crucial parts of the story out. Back in 2020 we weren’t short of people offering a counter narrative to the so called doom mongers. There were plenty of people ready to claim that we would quickly get herd immunity and very few people die. The problem is that they were utterly wrong. The worst case scenarios were closer to the outcome than the optimistic ones.

Furthermore, there is a reading back from outcomes to suggest that the worst case scenarios weren’t realistic which missed the point that as a result of those warnings we did modify behaviour. Professor Neil Ferguson was much derided for suggesting that 250 -500k people could die but the reality is that even with strict measures we have seen around 150k of excess deaths.  This is a classic problem we have. Back at the start of the century people announced that the Y2K bug was a hoax because no catastrophe happened at the millennium. In so doing they ignored the hard work, many hours and plenty of sleepless nights that many engineers, analysts and computer scientists experienced in the years running up to the 01/01/2000 in order to prevent a disaster.

We cannot read back from a positive outcome the belief that only a positive outcome was ever possible without any intervention of effort. Because things sometimes turn out okay we cannot assume that it was always inevitable.

Another way that people read back with hindsight is to draw negative or pessimistic conclusions. So, over the past week, I’ve frequently heard people comment that if two shots of the vaccine isn’t enough to protect us from Omicron then the whole vaccination programme was a waste of time.

Yet to say that is to miss three crucial points. First of all that if we hadn’t already got the vaccination programme in place and received our first two shots then we would be a long way back from getting up to the third dose and full protection. Indeed, that is evidenced by the specific issue at the moment whereby caution resulted in many secondary school children only receiving a first dose recently if at all. This means that it will be sometime before those young people can benefit from further doses and so there is a risk of high Omicron circulation in schools from the New Year.

Secondly, if we hadn’t been vaccinated then we would not have been able to enjoy significant freedoms from the Spring of last year as things began to open up and then fully after July the 19th and thirdly, we would not have benefited from the huge reduction in admission and mortality rates. The vaccine protected the NHS and saved lives.

Now this isn’t just relevant to COVID. I think we have a tendency towards this type of hindsight in all walks of life. We look at what is happening in church life now and we conclude that past decisions were right or wrong. Of course it was correct not to start working on a new building or recruit a new pastor or start the church plant back in September 2019 because look at what would have happened to those plans when the pandemic hit. Yet in September 2019 none of your church members knew that the pandemic was coming.  The result is that you become paralysed in decision making now. I suspect in a month or two there will be people resisting the lifting of current restrictions because “We might end up with another variant in the summer.”  Similarly, people use the same thinking to argue that churches can’t make decisions because they don’t know what the future holds.

The reality is that you can only make decisions based on the information you have in front of you at the time. This means that we have to act humbly. We never know when our plans will be torn up -sometimes because something better comes along, sometimes because disaster strikes. So the best thing to do is to make the best decision you can, humbly recognising that it is as the Lord wills. Then don’t try to read back a different verdict onto your decisions based on new information at a later date.

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