Good afternoon, boys. At the end of this, I will give a few notices separately, but today’s assembly talk comes directly from a slightly abbreviated version of a newspaper article written almost a month ago in The Times. It remains one of my favourite articles written about the current crisis, which is perhaps unsurprising, given that its author is an enduringly clear and interesting thinker. Matthew Syed is also one of the best public speakers I have ever heard. You may also know him through his books, most famously Bounce and Black Box Thinking. Anyway, this is from his article in The Times on 29 March. Syed is usually ahead of the game, and so he was at the end of March. Do look it up if you find yourself interested (click here to read).

“At 3.25pm on January 15, 2009, US Airways flight 1549 took off from Runway 4 of New York’s LaGuardia airport. Ninety-seven seconds later, the plane flew into a flock of Canada geese, which knocked out the engines. Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot, would later talk of a deathly silence, the aeroplane losing thrust. He and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, were now 3,000ft above New York in a 70-ton Airbus A320, bereft of power, with the lives of 153 passengers and crew in their hands.

Sullenberger recalls his immediate sense of panic. “It was the most sickening, pit-of-your-stomach feeling I had ever experienced,” he said. “I could feel the adrenaline rush.” His first thoughts were tactical: switching on the ignition, so that the engines would recover if they were not too damaged; starting auxiliary power in the tail; nudging the joystick forwards. This is a classic response to stress in a time of crisis. Perception narrows. One can’t help focusing on the instantaneous demands of staying airborne.

After the first few seconds, however, he had the sense to recognise that his focus had shrunk drastically, which, in turn, gave him the courage to take a step back and seek out the bigger picture. This is sometimes called situational awareness. It requires a “dual focus”: making sure the aeroplane is being handled, while simultaneously making strategic judgments.

Teamwork was crucial. Skiles rifled through the quick reference handbook as Sullenberger assessed the big picture. He calculated that they wouldn’t make it back to LaGuardia airport, so the Hudson river was their best hope. Even as they swooped, the division of responsibilities was seamless, Skiles calling out airspeeds and altitude as Sullenberger calibrated the sink rate.

“Imagine having to disarm a bomb while also having to deal with menial chores and talk on the phone,” William Langewiesche, an author and pilot, writes in his gripping book Fly by Wire. “Sullenberger and Skiles disarmed a bomb on a three-minute fuse.”

Imagine, too, Boris Johnson suffering with the coronavirus, anxious about his fiancée and unborn baby, seeking to lead a team (some of whom also have the virus) while handling an unprecedented crisis. It must feel like flying a hundred planes while defusing countless bombs — and with naysayers sniping constantly.

Almost as soon as Sullenberger landed the plane, he was surrounded by armchair critics. One claimed that he should have flown back to LaGuardia, calculating that he would have made it just in time. It caused quite a stir. Yet further analysis showed that this calculation contained a revealing flaw: the critic had assumed an instant decision to return to the airport after the birdstrike. But adding the minimum few seconds required for any pilot to make a judgment would have meant the plane crashing on approach.

Isn’t that the thing about crises? It is easy for those on the outside, without pressure of time and without having to juggle contradictory demands, to offer marvellously manicured critiques.

It is rather more difficult to put oneself in the shoes of ministers and their scientific advisers, having to take decisions of grave consequence on the basis of ambiguous and rapidly changing data, while surrounded by outside experts who are themselves sharply divided.

The logistical demands alone have been unprecedented. Creating field hospitals; making new rules for business; co-ordinating departmental responses. Ministers have been eyeball to eyeball with complexities that must have threatened cognitive overload. Tactical decisions can be pushed down the chain of command, but it isn’t so easy with strategic ones. That is why a crisis sucks you in, swamping bandwidth, as every retrospective account from the Second World War to the Cuban Missile Crisis attests.

But that is also why taking a step back, even at this stage, might prove helpful. Recalibrating situational awareness. Is the imperative of saving lives today endangering more lives in the future through a crippled economy? Do we need to reform information-gathering and testing? Are we too committed to particular epidemiological models? We know from previous crises that some assumptions become such an article of faith, such an anchor of decision-making, that they are reinforced even when a new situation doesn’t fit. This is sometimes called model-induced blindness” – the stubborn cousin, perhaps, of situational awareness.

I will stop there in the article, but isn’t it interesting that only the other day, Matt Hancock said that the Government had concentrated far too much on a probable flu outbreak, as a Tier 1 National security risk for several years. This had dominated contingency planning in the UK, where in fact they should have been planning for a new respiratory virus as a follow up to SARS, and learning from the response of Asian countries to that crisis. 

This might, with the benefit of hindsight, of course, have been due to a lack of situational awareness.

It seems to me that advanced levels of situational awareness are prevalent in the most impressive people – and you can train for it, like the airline pilots clearly do. In fact, in many ways you do already train for it – acting, playing in an orchestra, running a game from fly-half all require situational awareness of their type – you need to understand what is going on around you in any given moment in order to perform well. But most of those moments are pre-planned and allow only for the normal. 

Try throwing somebody out of their comfort zone on stage, in the music hall and on the rugby field and give them a second or two to respond and then see what happens. Maybe a violin string breaks, or a bin catches fire, or a teammate collapses. That tests really people’s situational awareness.  

The current situation tests the Government in all sorts of ways, not least in its relentlessness and its extraordinary demands on the minds of a few key people. Syed recommends a break, a step back, in order to recover a sense of perspective and to uncover new perspectives. Apparently, Winston Churchill used to take “recuperative swimming holidays at the height of the Second World War, not just because he wished to recharge his batteries but to gain psychological distance.” 

Phenomenal courage, in fact, when you are in charge and people are dying based upon your hourly decisions.  

The majority of us, whatever we think about ourselves, are not particularly good at situational awareness; and stuck at home, perhaps agitated and irritated, not least by seeing the same few people all day every day, no matter how much we love them, it can simply become worse. Our focus narrows, rather than broadens. Can I ask you all, boys, to keep testing yourselves on this front? When you feel yourself becoming tense, looking inward, feeling frustrated, try to take a step backwards and outwards, as Sullenberg did on Flight 1549 out of New York, and just consider if there might be another way to look at things.

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