Lord Sumption: ‘Has there been a national overreaction to the coronavirus pandemic?’

Lord Sumption is a former Supreme Court Judge. He believes that this national lockdown is not right. This is what he said in a BBC interview on March 30, 2020. What do you think?

[1].  Do you think the entire coronavirus lockdown was an overkill?

Amidst an atmosphere of terrible fear, paranoia and Chinese conspiracy theories, there are conflicting medical opinions:

One set of medical experts tell us that if we do not carry out a lockdown, millions will die.

Another group of epidemiologists tell us that we should allow the virus to ‘blow through’ society so that society can biologically immunise itself, but we should only protect the very young, the very old, and people with respiratory issues – and importantly, there should be no lockdown.

Then there are the economic issues.

I do not have to tell you how many human rights violations have been perpetrated, all across the world, by over-enthusiastic law-enforcement officers.

Thirdly, there are other examples of Asian nations being successful without a lockdown: South Korea, Japan, and Singapore.

What is it they have done that we have not?

What is that one element that they practise, that we do not?

These questions need answers.

Finally, ministerial statements – both here and overseas – give a picture of unpreparedness, ignorance, and irresponsibility:

These have sometimes bordered on the idiotic:

Imagine drinking warm water to kill the virus.

On how aircrew need to dress.

And, during the lockdown, how wives should speak to their husbands.

Was all this necessary? Could we have taken a different approach?

[2].  The ‘Old School’ Judges’ Code

British judges lived by a code of silence. The centuries-old judicial stricture was emphasised by MacKinnon LJ, when he once said:

“He is the best judge whose name is known to the fewest readers of the Daily Mail”.

The Daily Mail was then considered a somewhat racy tabloid.1Not much has changed since he said that in 1940 in ‘On Circuit’.

This became known as the ‘MacKinnon test’: judicial silence in the face of the most pressing journalistic queries.

The author RFV Heuston remarked that judges are not equipped to answer (‘the fanged queries of’ – my words!) journalists.

[3].  Lord Sumption

Jonathan Philip Chadwick Sumption was sworn in as a judge of the UKs Supreme Court on January 2012.

He retired in December 2018.

Sumption is very much a historian.

He links past behavioural patterns to current, or future folly.

Much of what he says, to me, sounds almost always right.

He is the only one who defies the ‘MacKinnon test’, and for the right reasons.

[4].  This is all BBC. And to them goes all the credit

See, in the following BBC interview, what Lord Sumption thinks about how the UK authorities are dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

I thought you should know about it.

The Interviewer is the BBC journalist, Johnny Dymond.

It was published on March 30, 2020, during a programme known as ‘BBC World at One’.

I think BBC did an admirable job.

You can find it here.

[5].  Here is the Interview, in full, from paragraphs 6 to 11


[6]. A hysterical slide into a police state…

Dymond:  ‘A hysterical slide into a police state, a shameful police force intruding with scant regard to common sense or tradition and irrational overreaction driven by fear. These are not the accusation of wild-eyed campaigners. They come from the lips of one of our most eminent jurists, Lord Sumption, former justice of the Supreme Court.’

Dymond: ‘I spoke to him about his concerns before we came on air:-’

Lord Sumption:  ‘The real problem is when human society lose their freedom, it is not usually because tyrants have taken it away, it is usually because people willingly surrender their freedom in return for protection against some external threat. And the threat is usually a real threat, but usually exaggerated, and that’s what I fear we are seeing now.’

‘The pressure on politicians has come from the public, they want action, they don’t pause to ask whether the action will work, they don’t ask themselves whether the cost will be worth paying, they want action anyway.’

‘Anyone who has studied history, will recognise here the classic symptom of collective hysteria.’

‘Hysteria is infectious, we are working ourselves out into a lather, in which we exaggerate the threat and stop asking ourselves whether the cure may be worse than the disease.’

[7].  DymondAt a time like this, as you acknowledge citizens do look to the state for protection, for assistance, we shouldn’t be surprised then if the state takes on new powers if it responds that is what it has been asked to do, almost demanded of it?

Lord Sumption:   ‘Yes, that is absolutely true, we should not be surprised but we have to recognise that this is how societies becomes despotisms. And we also have to recognise that this is a process which leads naturally to exaggeration. The symptoms of coronavirus are clearly serious for those with other  significant medical conditions especially if they are old. There are exceptional cases in which they have struck young people down which would have a lot of publicity but the numbers are pretty small.

The Italian evidence for instance, suggests that only 12% of deaths, is it possible to say coronavirus is the main cause of death? So yes, this is serious, and yes, it is understandable people cry out to the government.

But the real question is, is this serious enough to warrant putting most of our population into house imprisonment, wrecking our economy for an indefinite period, destroying businesses that honest and hardworking people have taken years to build up, saddling future generations with debt, depression, stress, heart attack, suicide and unbelievable distress, inflicted on millions of people who are not especially vulnerable and will suffer only mild symptoms or none at all, like the health secretary and the prime minister?’

[8].  Dymond‘The Executive, the government is suddenly really rather powerful and really rather unscrutinised. Parliament is in recess, its due to come back in late April, we are not quite sure whether it will or not. The Prime minister is closeted away, communicating via his phone. There is not a lot in the way of scrutiny is there?

Lord Sumption:  ‘No, certainly there is not a lot in the way of institutional scrutiny, the press has engaged in a fair amount of scrutiny.

There has been some good and challenging journalism, but mostly the press has, I think, echoed and indeed amplified, the general panic.’

[9].  Dymond: ‘The restrictions in movement have also changed the relationship between the police and those who in name, at least they serve the police in naming and shaming citizens for travelling for what they say is the wrong time or driving to the wrong place. Is that set alarm bells ringing for you as a former senior member of the judiciary?’

Lord Sumption:  ‘Well, it,  I have to say it does, I mean the tradition of policing in this country is the policemen are citizens in uniform, they are not members of a disciplined hierarchy operating just on the government’s command.

Yet in some parts of the country, the police have been trying to stop people from doing things like travelling to take exercise in the open country which are not contrary to the regulations simply because ministers have said that they would prefer us not to travel. 

But police have no power to enforce ministers’ preferences but only legal regulations which don’t get anything like this far as the government’s guidance.

I have to say that the behaviour of the Derbyshire police in trying to shame people into using their undoubted right to travel to take exercise on the country and wrecking beauty spots in the fells that other people don’t want to go there, it is frankly disgraceful. This is what a police state is like, its state in which the government can issue orders or express preferences with no legal authority and the police will enforce ministers’ wishes.

I have to say that most police forces have behaved in a thoroughly sensible and moderate fashion and Derbyshire police have shamed our policing traditions.

There is a natural tendency of course and strong temptation for the police to lose sight of their real functions and turn themselves from citizens in uniform into glorified school prefects. I think it is really sad that the Derbyshire police have failed to resist that.’

[10].  Dymond: ‘There will be people listening who admire your legal wisdom but will also say “Well he’s not an epidemiologist, he doesn’t know how diseases spread, he doesn’t understand the risk to the health service if this thing gets out of control”. What do you say to them?’

‘What I’ll say to them, I am not a scientist, but it is the right and duty of every citizen to look and see what the scientists have said and analyse it for themselves and to draw commonsense conclusions.

We are all perfectly capable of doing that and there is no particular reason why the scientific nature of the problem that should mean that we would have to resign our liberty into the hands of scientists, we all have critical faculties and it is rather important in a moment of national panic, that we should maintain them .’

[11].  Dymond: ‘Lord Sumption, former justice of the Supreme Court speaking to me a bit earlier. We put his criticism of the Derbyshire Police Force who sent us this statement:’

‘Our advice to the public was in line with national government instruction and echoed what people in our community were saying following thousands of people that travelled to the Peak District National Park, the previous weekend just gone much smaller numbers and we thank the public for that response.’

For more, see here.




[The writer expresses his gratitude to Mr. Sri Sarguna, Ms KN Geetha, Mr Prabhkirat Singh, Mr. GS Saran, Miss KP Kasturi, Mr. Matthew Thomas Philip, Mr. Drew Lim, Miss Amuthambigai Tharmarajah and Mr Mugunthan Vadivelu for their assistance.] 

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