Jonny Dymond recorded an interview with Lord Sumption, ex-Justice of the UK Supreme Court. The interview was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 World at One 30 March 2020. In it Lord Sumption expressed concerns about the potential impact on freedom and civil liberty in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic. That edition of World at One can be accessed on BBC Sounds, and the interview itself is also available on YouTube:
I would describe myself as a liberal and a democrat, and as such I would agree with much of what Lord Sumption says here. His warning is both timely and crucially important. In view of its importance however I rather wish he’d dialled down the rhetoric and been less barristerial in selecting which factors best supported his case.
To cut to the chase, he seems to have, or to be choosing to display, a poor understanding of mathematics. The issue, as the world is being forced to understand, is exponential growth.
The symptoms of coronavirus are clearly serious for those with other significant medical conditions especially if they’re old. There are exceptional cases in which young people have been struck down, which have had a lot of publicity, but the numbers are pretty small. The Italian evidence for instance suggests that [in] only 12% of deaths is it possible to say coronavirus was the main cause of death. So yes this is serious and yes it’s understandable that 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 attacks, suicides 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.
No, Lord Sumption, the fact that most people infected with COVID-19 ‘will suffer only mild symptoms or none at all’ is, as the world is at last beginning to understand, at best irrelevant and at worst a significant historical obstacle to treating the pandemic seriously. Think back to those halcyon days when, say, only 100 people in the UK had COVID-19. I’ll deliberately use conservative numbers, although the starting numbers don’t particularly matter. Let’s say as many as 98% were ‘not especially vulnerable’, leaving 2% who were. Before social distancing the rate of infection was such that the number of cases was doubling every 3 days. So the number of vulnerable sufferers – those potentially needing hospital treatment – will also be (at least) doubling every 3 days. That means 4 after 3 days, 8 after 6 days, 16 after 9 days, and so on. After 30 days the number needing hospital treatment will be 2048. After another 30 days the number will be 2,097,152.
In response to numbers like this are we ‘working ourselves up into a lather in which we exaggerate the threat and stop asking ourselves whether the cure may be worse than the disease’?
Perhaps my biggest worry is that Lord Sumption seems to ignore the danger to the NHS. The average person in the street, purely as an individual, may not suffer unduly if he or she catches COVID-19. But what if that average person in the street has elderly relatives, or suddenly develops cancer or is involved in an accident and needs hospital treatment from an NHS which is on its knees?
Towards the end of the interview he is asked how he would reply to someone who says, ‘…well, he’s not an epidemiologist, he doesn’t know how disease spreads, he doesn’t understand the risks to the health service if this thing gets out of control.’ His answer:
What I say to them is 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 to analyse it for themselves and to draw common sense conclusions. We are all perfectly capable of doing that and there’s no particular reason why the scientific nature of the problem should mean we have to resign our liberty into the hands of scientists. We all have critical faculties and it’s rather important, in a moment of national panic, that we should maintain them.
Not good enough Lord Sumption. You are 100% right to warn us of the danger of tyranny and despotism. But you cannot do this by downplaying the threat which the lockdown is trying to protect us from. Sadly, most people’s ‘common sense’ does not extend to exponential growth.
Chris Lawrence 2020.