The Precautionary Principle can be taken too far. This being a common complaint about modern politics and politics and regulation as done by the European Union. Here we’ve a French application of the same mistake:
Earlier on Monday, Beaune, a close ally of the French president Emmanuel Macron, also defended the EU’s record, adding that the UK’s apparent success had “nothing to do with Brexit”. He claimed the UK strategy had involved risks that France’s public would have found intolerable.
He said: “The British are in an extremely difficult health situation. They are taking many risks in this vaccination campaign. And I can understand it, but they are taking many risks.”
In his critique of the British rollout, Beaune cited the UK’s decision to extend the gap between the initial and booster jabs to up to 12 weeks, twice the maximum gap recommended by the World Health Organization, and its dependence on the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
He said: “They have spaced – and the scientists have told us not to – they have massively spaced the two injections apart … They mainly depend on one vaccine, AstraZeneca. The European authority will tell us tomorrow, but Germany has already told us about doubts regarding the effectiveness in people above 65.
“The UK has used the vaccine in this age group. So I understand that if they are in a difficult health situation, they take additional risks, but I do not think our citizens would accept if we took all those risks despite the recommendations of our scientists.”
Adults would understand that the correct risk calculation is not to compare the use of the vaccine – even which vaccine – against the perfect use of the vaccine. But to compare the varied possible, given real world constraints, uses or not uses of the vaccine/s.
Yes, obviously, if we had the full two doses of the perfect vaccine then the correct action is to give everyone their two doses, three weeks apart, as fast as arms can be lined up.
But that’s not actually the world we’re in. We’re in one where none of the vaccines are perfect. Further, we’ve supply constraints upon the vaccines. So, we now want to discuss how do we best reduce the death toll from infections, the wider costs from lockdowns, given that constraint we’ve got with the vaccine availability?
Answer – get as much protection as we can from our limited supplies of vaccine. Single injections to more people by delaying the second dose. Using whatever vaccines come to hand – at least those that have a reasonable if not perfect effect.
To argue the opposite, that we should spend that limited supply on double doses over 3 weeks is to be making the perfect the enemy of the good. Or, another description of the same thing, to be taking the Precautionary Principle too far.
Yes, clearly, it would be better if we could but insisting upon it given real world constraints is to lose lives through the delay. Which is, of course, the general problem with a rigid insistence upon the Precautionary Principle. It all sounds great, don;t do anything until we know that it’s safe. But that’s not reality, nothing is ever safe, just some things are safer.
Or, in one of those central economic lessons, there are no solutions, only trade offs.
It may even be that French public opinion insists upon being on the wrong side of this divide. That they disregard their countryman’s – Bastiat – insistence to look at the hidden. But if that is the cause here then we’re well out of political union with them, aren’t we? For who would want to be tied to the decision making process of people who are wrong?