Hans Petter Graver
Professor, University of Oslo
It is possible to ensure better accuracy in the measures and greater support for them.
This is a chronicle. Opinions in the text are at the writer’s expense.
Decisions on infection control measures are still made under great uncertainty and with little knowledge, both about the effects of the individual measures and about the virus they are to fight.
There is a lack of research and systematic knowledge about the significance of the individual measures to counteract illness and strains on the health care system and society in general. This is also missing about the burdens the measures themselves have on society, businesses and individuals.
Where society faces a clear risk, but without knowledge of how to handle and prevent it, the precautionary principle is in place.
The principle was originally developed within environmental law. It has gradually been used in a number of other areas, also to prevent threats to public health.
It is important to follow recognized norms
The principle is well known and often invoked. Nevertheless, there is no clear agreement on its content. It is sufficient to refer to the discussion on the climate threat to illustrate differences in the precautionary approach.
The handling of the pandemic with the various restrictions adopted by the authorities can only be justified on the basis of a precautionary logic.
Then it is important to follow recognized standards for the use of precautionary measures. It is important to prevent decisions about the individual measures from becoming arbitrary, as one might suspect the decision to stop drinking. It was introduced shortly after an outbreak associated with a Christmas dinner at Aker Brygge in Oslo.
Such individual incidents can lead to critical questions in public opinion and demands for measures. However, they are unsuitable as a basis for risk management decisions.
Build on a scientific basis
There are certain legal guidelines for the use of precautionary measures as a basis for intervention. These are most developed within the EU. The precautionary principle is enshrined in the treaty as a basis for regulating the environment and health.
The European Commission has summarized them basic guidelines for the use of the precautionary principle as a basis for government regulations.
The authorities must:
- Build on the best possible scientific basis.
- Evaluate both the risk and the consequences of not acting.
- Involve all stakeholders in discussions about possible measures.
In addition, the measures adopted must be proportionate, consistent and subject to scientific studies and cost-benefit assessments.
The authorities can not build on pure assumptions about harm by not acting.
Not proper analyzes
To date, restrictions have been adopted that are not based on proper analyzes of probable risk and costs that the restrictions impose on various actors and interests. Although these are intrusive measures that also in part interfere with constitutional rights.
Despite this, the authorities have not ensured that systematic research takes place. They have also not published analyzes that show that they have assessed where the legal boundaries for intervention go.
Must organize differently
Criticism of the restrictions is growing.
If the authorities are to emerge from the difficult situation they have found themselves in, with growing criticism and failing support for their policies, they must organize their work on pandemic regulation differently.
They must open up as soon as possible to research on the effects of different types of measures.
Such research should preferably take place outside bodies that are under the control of the authorities, and not just as orders to document the effect of the measures that the authorities implement. To achieve this, public funding is needed.
In addition, the authorities must be willing to open up for research by comparing different situations with and without infection control measures. This presupposes that it is possible to relax infection control measures for research purposes.
The authorities should enter into dialogue with the National Research Ethics Committee for Medicine and Health Sciences as soon as possible in order to prepare guidelines for such research.
In line with the European Commission’s requirements for involvement and co-influence, the authorities should ensure open and inclusive processes before new infection control restrictions are adopted.
This must include public access to professional advice before the government adopts new restrictions, as well as consultation and public consultations.
To make time for this, the processes must be organized differently. One way is to set up various fast-working committees à la the Holden Committee, with expertise in different areas.
The committees can provide reasoned advice on, for example, socio-economic consequences, consequences for vulnerable groups, for different industries, cultural life, etc. In addition, on the legal conditions for intervening in different rights.
The reports from such committees can, after they have been consulted, form a good basis for the authorities’ decisions.
Through a better organization of the decision-making processes, more knowledge and greater transparency, the authorities will be able to ensure both better accuracy in the measures against the pandemic, and also greater support for them.
This is necessary, unless you want to bet that the pandemic is over in a few weeks.