Covid – Risk assessments

By Sean Comber

We’ve been cooped up for 3 weeks now to the day.  Been out the house to walk, bicycle ride and no more. My wife gets out super early to walk around Tesco 2 m apart and do the weekly shop. I work from home. Logged into the computer conducting business via zoom hour after hour. I try to predict the use of antibiotics for secondary infections, leading to more antimicrobial resistance in the environment which will inevitably hasten the next round of pandemic. Scary times. Folk in the East already spend their lives behind masks as a matter of course, after this we will be not far behind. We live in a work of threat, terrorism, phishing emails, hackers, health and safety, nanny states. We live in a world where government seeks to reduce hazards to zero. Motorcyclists are particularly impacted. You cannot ride a bike before you are 30 and proved you in no way likely to kill yourself. There is no Darwinism here, killing yourself nowadays takes a bit of an effort. At 17 you cannot jump on some kind of 3 cylinder 2 stroke missile and take off down the A23 into oblivion at ooooo about 70 miles per hour given the inherently crap handling of such bikes back in the ‘70’s. But there again, think of the Euro4/5 whatever emissions, linked brakes, ABS, wheelie control …. Chances of killing yourself on a bike – almost zero – unless a little old lady pulls out in front of you at a T junction, and that will obviously be your fault for not paying attention and realising you were in her saccade.

OK so let’s take a step back here and try for once to understand risk and hazard. Hazard to a fact about something happening. Little old lady pulling out of a junction, a bike with more power than a chassis can handle, poor maintenance, in terms of a colleague at work, cadmium present in old Lego. Risk is the possibility of that the hazard may actually occur. Risk is a major factor – it is real and often in your gift. Take the Lego scenario, yes there is cadmium, a very toxic element in old Lego, there as a colourant -often yellow. So if you are in the know you can do the maths – how many Lego bricks containing X amount of cadmium does little Jonny have to swallow to be exposed to Y amount of toxicity which could be bad for him? If that is 1 brick – well, may be an issue. If that is 100 standard building blocks then you have to start to wonder, (a) is little Jonny a bit of an idiot, (b) little Jonny is unfortunately attracted to Lego and has been under fed and so sees yellow bricks as food. Still with scenario B you do wonder if having tried to pass 1 Lego brick, would little Jonny not have learnt his lesson and thought may be Lego bricks were may be indigestible and pretty painful come nappy time…. The same goes for the little old lady in the car at the T junction, I watch carefully, ready to stop or do my best to be viewable even to the most myopic motorist. If the 5% chance occurs and she pulls out, I know I can brake in the distance required to avoid fatal injury – it’s all about risk.

Go to southern Europe and they get it. They ride bikes without helmets, wives on the back, kids on the front, fag in mouth, texting on mobile – but you know they are acutely aware of everything around them and they are prepared. They pay their money and they take their choice. Choice for us is being removed day after day, the lanes we ride, the bikes we buy, stop and think for too long and paranoia will set in! Covid 19 is a bit of a case in point. It is a virulent disease easily contracted, easily transmitted, fact. Kill rate – predicted to be 1%, but may be higher. Obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, influenza also kill at various rates. So we find ourselves in lockdown. Partly to reduce deaths, mostly to allow the NHS to cope with those presenting the disease at a rate that does not overwhelm a broken and bloated health service. Fair enough we are where we are. So social distancing is applied – makes sense, break to source-pathway-receptor linkage and you will slow the rate of infection, close mass events, schools, work from home all sensible. Next level – stay home, protect the NHS, save lives. Only go out for essential food, work if necessary and exercise. And here we are. Exercise. What falls under the remit of exercise? Walking, OK, up to a point, jogging, yes cycling, definitely, at least in Devon where there are hills everywhere…. The study I carried a while ago put trail riding at somewhere between skiing and climbing hills – undoubtedly exercise, yet we have been actively dissuaded from riding our bikes – why?

 I think we find ourselves in an interesting social and moral dilemma. In some ways I feel I should flout the current lock down on by trail riding my arse off until locked up by the rozzers and taken to court and really test the assumption – that is current – that trail riding is a legitimate form of exercise, particularly for the over 50’s who get precious little else exercise. For the long term health of trail riding rights of way, to have this tested in court may not be a bad thing. But let’s explore this in a bit more detail. To ride our bikes sufficiently to get enough exercise we really need to put an hour or so into our ride. Now, given restrictions applied year on year, to take in sufficient lanes we need to ride may be 50 miles, so not at all local. So if questioned you find yourself miles from home with a smile on your face on a ‘noisy’ unsociable motorcycle already deemed dangerous and antisocial. At the best of times we are barely accepted in the environment, walking a tightrope of doggedly keeping lanes open for all, volunteering for parish and county access committees, but at the same time somehow apologising for riding a totally legal mechanically propelled vehicle in the countryside on ancient public rights of way that do not happen to have tarmac on them. For someone as law abiding as me, that guilt factor is always there. OK, that aside, regarding Covid, what is the risk? Transmission? If you ride out on your own, wear gloves, ride for an hour or so, speak to no one, do not refuel, avoid petrol stations with their overwhelming attraction of chocolate, what is the risk of transmission – if you are not showing any symptoms – them almost zero. Certainly less than standing in Aldi’s queuing for loo roll. So that boils down to only one thing – you fall off and hurt yourself, require medical assistance thereby taking away valuable NHS resources that could be helping fight Covid 19. OK, fair enough – that is a fair risk. So now you personally need to make that calculation. Conditions are dry, roads are quiet, you know your ability, you cut your speed. How many times as a trail rider have you needed medical assistance? I can only speak for my 10 years or so riding – zero. OK, I’m being arrogant some will say – you never know others will say, why risk it others will say. Fair enough. But let’s put things into perspective. Far more equestrians die every year – around 100 people a year – I do not know any horsey folk who have stopped riding. Also 102 deaths per year occur for cyclists – they are still everywhere and ride with impunity. How many trail bike deaths per year – a lot less that is for sure. Slowly succumbing to cabin fever in the last 3 weeks I have – chain sawed my garden to death – 139 amputations a year for the USA alone ascribed to chainsaws, painted the outside of the house on a rickety ladder – 300 deaths a year according to World Health Organisation. Mowed the lawn repeatedly – 75 deaths per year in USA alone, walked up and down the stairs numerous times a day – responsible for 1600 fatalities a year, I’ve not heard any messages from Matt Hancock saying stay safe, buy a bungalow…. Had a bath a day – also 1600 deaths a year, the list goes on – including falling out of bed…..   

I so far have got to the point of printing out my health benefits article and am not far from going out on my bike for exercise……


Today I entered a middle ground. I got on my Land Rover 2x2 mountain bike – the only Land Rover I’d ever have the chance of owning – you can pay £80K for a near 400 BHP new Land Rover Defender……. Really – where did it all go so wrong? Anyway that is a different rant… I pedalled through Cully on a Bank Holiday Monday in a weirdly post-apocalyptic world of closed shops, a couple of folk chatting in the street – not 2 m apart! Queues outside the Coop and Aldi and up past the closed Padbrook Park hotel then wheezing got off the bike – 18 gears are not enough in Devon and I realise now why Paul’s KTM can never make it up that hill – it is steep! Still, I enjoyed the view. The high pressure that was all warm, dry and lovely after a horrendous winter only made lock down even more tortuous, had cleared a bit, a biting nor’ easterly from Scandinavia drop temperatures from low 20’s to low teens at best, but the air was proper crisp and the views as I climbed every more impressive across the Culm valley. The road eventually flattened out and in bottom gear I found my balance and built up some momentum, 1, 2, 3, all the way onto the middle chain wheel – so many gears, but also so much effort…. I was only passed by a car or two and as I turned right at Trinity Cross and bobbled between the potholes down towards Ash Cross a big old tractor loomed into view with a couple of grinning youngsters – you never see anyone over 30 driving a tractor….  who pulled over necessitating me to pedal like fury to not delay their vital work, feeding the nation in a time of crisis. After what felt like hours, but only ever minutes on the trail bikes I turned off into the UCR at Week Cross. Thankfully days of dry weather and massive tractors with massive tyres had crushed the red Devon clay ruts to a largely flat surface for me to finish the climb to a heady 155m above sea level. I paused to catch my breath, view the splendid bucolic rolling Devon patchwork countryside of freshly tilled red soil, greening summer corn, a bit delayed from the soaking winter, white washed dotted farmsteads, fluffy white hawthorn hedges broken occasionally with yellow gorse.


 Panting in the gateway, I reflected on my motivations for wanting to ride a trail bike, a petrol mechanically driven vehicle in the countryside? Something may be we all should do occasionally. I love spring in Devon, there is nowhere, absolutely nowhere else in the world I’d want to be. I love the bluebell filled hedges and beech woods – but hang on my garden if full of bluebells, the daffodil littered hedges, but hang on my garden is full of daffs…. And yet for ever how much I love my garden, it is not enough. I cannot see for miles and miles, I cannot escape the sound of the M5 in my garden for all of its loveliness, I do not have stone hedges full of campion, violets, primula and all manner of other spring flowers, I cannot achieve that state of being ‘away’, out in the country, the burbling brooks, the ancient history of Celtic stone, faint remnants of iron age castles, deep, deep lanes where my ancestors drove cattle to market over millennia. We are of the earth, as Devonians we have a sense of place, you cannot put a value on it, you cannot legislate for it, this is our county, our land and to restrict our access to it is an attack on our own DNA as much as Covid 19 is.

So all I ask is to keep things into perspective, please Mr Johnson/Hancock/Sunak, bear that in mind when delivering edicts from a capital, largely out of touch with a far flung part of England that will be forever Wessex.