• Dr Hugh Willbourn

CC3 Who will replace Neil Ferguson?

Updated: May 14




The resignation of Neil Ferguson opens a vacancy on the SAGE committee and a chance to modify our response to Sars-CoV-2. Our death toll now stands at the highest in Europe. Our hospitals have not been overwhelmed but we do not appear to have massively out-performed Sweden, although we have enforced a strict lockdown. It is time to change tack. We need to manage the risk now, not fantasize about eliminating it or creating a vaccine in twelve months’ time.

SAGE does not need another expert. As James Surowiecki writes in The Wisdom of Crowds the quality of decisions made by teams are improved when non-experts are added. Academics tend to know too much about their own speciality, not enough about the whole field and even less about the limitations of how their field connects to the real world. SAGE needs some genuine diversity of experience.

It is worth noting, en passant, that of the fifty (now forty-nine) experts currently sitting on the SAGE committee not one single member has had their income or career impaired by their decisions. Not one. The handful that are not on the public payroll work for tech giants or the Wellcome Trust. They are totally insulated from the economic consequences of their advice.

So if we don’t need another expert, whom do we need? Well, how about you? You could do a better job than Professor Ferguson. All you have to do is toss a coin and you will be right fifty per cent of the time, which is rather better than his record of predictions.

However experience tells me that there are certain people who are likely to outperform both the toss of a coin and the experts. Eleven years ago, I interviewed the bosses of small building firms for research on behalf of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Our respondents had exactly what the committee needs: daily, practical, personal experience of how to manage risk successfully. We called them “Confident Captains.” This is how we described them:

'Our respondents were usually physically robust with a firm handshake. In temperament they were confident, entrepreneurial, self-sufficient, independent and solution-focussed. They were clearly accustomed to decision-making and leadership and took pride in their work. They had often started with a trade but chose to learn more about other trades and, in time to start their own business. They relish having their own business with both the rewards and the responsibilities it brings. “I prefer to be my own boss.” It was very clear however that the business was not all about money but rather about satisfaction and pride in the job. Many had chosen not to expand beyond a certain size. “I’d rather stay small. When I’m hands on I know the job’s being done right.” '

Overall experience in qualitative research taught me that 40+, non-graduate, skilled workers (coded C1/C2 by the National Readership Survey) from Scotland, Northern Ireland and North of England were frequently excellent at seeing through bullshit and identifying the crux of the issue.

Bringing together this general experience and the HSE research gives us the following recruitment criteria for the next member of SAGE:

· Served a trade apprenticeship

· Now has his (yes it is probably, but not necessarily, a man) own successful small business as a builder

· Directly employing fewer than fifteen people

· Contracts trusted, independent tradesmen for specific tasks

· Typology ‘Confident Captain’

· Wins all new business by word of mouth

· Weathered the recession in 2008-9

· Lives in Scotland, Northern Ireland or the North of England

· C1C2

· Age 40+

This may seem a completely bizarre recommendation, but there are deeper philosophical and cognitive reasons why SAGE needs people like this from outside the academic milieu.

The way an academic thinks is grounded in formal, theoretical, written study. It favours analytic abstraction, the fixity of replicable data and a detached, objective point of view with low emotional content. This delivers great advantages, but it has some drawbacks. Academics rarely have to manage serious personal risk and live with the consequences.

A builder is directly accountable for his actions and the way he thinks is founded in practical experience. His thinking favours a rich sensitivity to context and consequences, an awareness of the changeability of circumstances and a personal engagement with the emotional responses of clients, contractors, employees and the public. Builders have direct, daily personal experience of assessing and managing personal, physical, economic and engineering risk. These small builders do not typically do formal, written 'risk assessments.' Instead, over time they develop heuristics and a felt-sense about risk which is context-sensitive, practical and insightful.

We discovered a fundamental difference between the attitudes of our builders and their perception of the HSE. They believed that the HSE was telling them that if they followed all the health and safety rules to the letter they would have a safe site. Our respondents believed that a safer message was, "Remember it's dangerous."


Skilled, successful builders have the experience and insight to make good decisions. It is an advantage that they know nothing about the biology of viruses or the norms of public health policy. They don’t need to know that sort of detail. They will ask the right questions and put their fingers on the assumptions and presumptions that have led our policy astray. If an academic cannot explain and justify their proposals in a manner a sensible, practical person can understand, the fault lies with the academic, not the listener.

This suggestion is perfectly serious but it is not exhaustive. I am sure there are many other people with practical experience of risk who could also make valuable contributions, and I am not the only person with a PhD who values highly the wisdom of practical and experienced tradesmen.

Given the weight of numbers of the academics, we probably need at least three good builders on board. And the approach had better be serious, lucrative and compelling: all the best builders are booked up for months in advance, even in a coronavirus-induced recession.

If you are stuck at home with time on your hands, perhaps you might email your MP or the cabinet office and for the greater good of the country, make the very great sacrifice of recommending the wonderful builder who did such a good job for you.