It’s hot, sure but we don’t need the health bureaucrats to tell us to open the windows

Phew, What A Scorcha! No, not a tabloid headline from this week, but from 1976. As many have pointed out already, in that distant summer Britain experienced a prolonged heatwave. The temperature was over 30 degrees for several weeks, without respite.

We survived without the hysteria of the Met Office or the pronouncements of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA). UKHSA was set up under Boris Johnson, as a throwaway attempt to consolidate the sprawling bureaucratic machine of Public Health England. It is an indictment of the whole period of Johnson’s tenure as Prime Minister.

Minister swore to abolish PHE after it attracted opprobrium from politicians and the public alike for its conspicuous incompetence. But the bureaucracy which reappeared was exactly the same, under a new name.

Meanwhile, Johnson clapped together his hands considering it a job well done.

The head of UKHSA, Jenny Harries, held a high level post in PHE until becoming Deputy Chief Medical Officer. She appeared at the Prime Ministerial Covid press conferences in the early stages of the pandemic, being responsible for such gems as the statement that the UK had “a perfectly adequate supply of PPE”.

This time round, UKHSA has used its time well to issue “heat health advice”. The stuff, which, yesterday morning, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said was simply “common sense”.

We were told to try and keep out of the sun between 11am and 3pm. And perhaps this advice is necessary. After all, Noel Coward did have a mega-hit with his 1930s song “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”.

We were also given the sage wisdom to “avoid physical exertion in the hottest parts of the day”. A somewhat unnecessary addition to the 11am rule.

Human societies have always fostered, whether for good or ill, shared beliefs on what is a sensible course of action in any given context. This often extends to morality, to shared concepts of what is right or wrong amongst all members of a society.

The Ancient Egyptians knew how to cool down, by hanging wet reeds over their windows to keep the air cool. But instead, we seem to need bureaucrats to tell us what was obvious centuries ago.

Increasingly, there is hardly any aspect of human activity which is deemed to be valid unless it has been sanctioned by rules laid down by experts. There is of course valuable information in, for example, a weather forecast warning people of very high temperatures. Short-term forecasting has been demonstrably improved over time.

By and large, incredible though it may seem, people are able to process such information, judge its reliability and adjust their behaviour appropriately all by themselves.

Approaches which allow individuals to exercise choice and judgment have proved over the ages to be pretty good ways of discovering what works. A key reason for this is that they allow trial and error, the application of individual experience and, most importantly, feedback.

It is this principle which needs to be restored across the whole area of public policy. In a heatwave, we do not need highly paid experts in UKHSA and the Met Office to instruct us how to behave. “Phew, What a Scorcha” is all we need to know.

As published in City AM Wednesday 20th July 2022
Paul Ormerod
Image: Pxhere

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Alex O’Byrne, Associate at Volterra, is an experienced economic consultant specialising in economic, health and social impact, economic strategy, project appraisal and socio-economic planning matters.

Alex has led the socio-economic and health assessments of some of the most high profile developments across the UK, including Battersea Power Station, Olympia London, London Resort, MSG Sphere and Westfield. He has significant experience inputting to EIAs and s106 discussions as well as drafting economic statements, employment and skills strategies and affordable workspace strategies.

Alex is also experienced at economic appraisal for infrastructure. He was project manager of the economic appraisal for the City Centre to Mangere Light Rail in Auckland. He also led the economic and financial appraisals of the third tranche of the Transport Access Program for Transport for New South Wales, in which Alex developed and employed innovative methodological approaches to better capture benefits for individuals with reduced mobility.

He is interested in the limitations of current appraisal methodologies and ways of improving economic and health analysis to ensure it is accessible to as many people as possible. To this end, Alex recognises the importance of transparent and simple to understand analysis and ensuring all work is supported by a robust narrative.

Alex holds a BSc (Hons) in Economics from the University of Manchester and he was a member of the first cohort of the Mayor’s Infrastructure Young Professionals Panel.


Senior Partner

t: +44 020 8878 6333

Ellie is a partner at Volterra, specialising in the economic impact of developments and proposals, and manages many of the company’s projects on economic impact, regeneration, transport and development.

With thirteen years experience at Volterra delivering high quality projects to clients across the public and private sector, Ellie has expertise in developing methods of estimating economic impact where complex issues exist with regards to deadweight, displacement and additionality.

Ellie has significant experience in estimating the economic impact across all types of property development including residential, leisure, office and mixed use schemes.

Project management of recent high profile schemes include the luxury hotel London Peninsula, Battersea Power Station and the Nova scheme at London Victoria. Ellie has also led studies across the country estimating the economic and regeneration impact of proposed transport investments, including studies on HS2 and Crossrail.

Ellie holds a degree in Mathematics and Economics from the University of Cambridge.