The former supreme court justice Jonathan Sumption has been criticised for telling a woman with stage 4 cancer that her life was “less valuable” than others during a televised discussion of the costs of coronavirus lockdowns.
Appearing on the BBC’s The Big Questions to discuss the question of whether lockdown was “punishing too many for the greater good”, Lord Sumption, one of the most prominent anti-lockdown campaigners, said that he did not accept that “all lives are of equal value”.
The former justice, who served on the supreme court until 2018, said he believed his children’s and grandchildren’s lives were “worth more because they’ve got a lot more of it ahead”.
Responding to Sumption’s remarks, Deborah James, who has stage 4 metastatic bowel cancer and hosts the BBC’s You, Me And The Big C podcast, said: “With all due respect, I am the person who you say their life is not valuable.”
The peer then interrupted James, saying: “I didn’t say your life was not valuable, I said it was less valuable.”
James continued: “Who are you to put a value on life? In my view, and I think in many others, life is sacred and I don’t think we should make those judgment calls. All life is worth saving regardless of what life it is people are living.
“I’m fully aware and I’ve seen first-hand and said goodbye to best friends in terms of the collateral Covid is causing but at the same time I’m incredibly grateful to be somebody who is kept alive because of the NHS.”
Sumption was also challenged by Catherine Foot from the Centre for Ageing Better, who said she “shuddered” at his suggestion that all lives were not equal. She said that the crisis necessitated drawing “ethical red lines”, one of which is that “every human is equal”.
The peer’s remarks were widely condemned online, with the human rights barrister Adam Wagner describing them as “inhumane, almost grotesque”.
During the programme, Sumption argued that only the “old and the vulnerable” should isolate. He was challenged on this point by the host Nicky Campbell, who questioned whether his solution wasn’t “utterly simplistic” as vulnerability includes a broad spectrum of people and people of all ages interact in society.
Sumption also claimed that government action had “virtually no impact” on mortality rates – a point which was rebuffed by Calum Semple, professor of child health and outbreak medicine at Liverpool University, who described it as “plain wrong”. Semple also underlined that “the value of life doesn’t change at the age of 70”.
Sumption has been an outspoken critic of the government’s handling of the pandemic, frequently arguing that the measures taken to curb the virus have been an attack on personal liberties. Delivering the Cambridge Freshfields annual law lecture in October, he said the emergency measures taken by the government in the spring were “the most significant interference with personal freedom in the history of our country”.