The bigger they are the harder they fall may be true of heavyweight boxers. It’s just as true of distinguished figures in public life. And they don’t come much more distinguished than Lord Sumption.
He was a Supreme Court judge with more letters after his name than a postman’s sack. He’s won wide praise for his BBC Reith Lectures and yet more praise from some quarters for his views on lockdowns.
This week he fell — and it was a pretty hard fall.
He’d been arguing on BBC One’s The Big Questions programme that lockdowns hurt the young disproportionately.
He made the perfectly reasonable point that it’s the old who are especially vulnerable to Covid but the young who are paying the price of protecting them by having their lives put on hold and their futures threatened.
So he wants to end the universal lockdown and says the Government should help old and vulnerable people to isolate themselves while everyone else is allowed to get on with their lives much as normal.
Controversial, certainly, but it was what he said next that set the sirens wailing: ‘All lives are not of equal value. The older you are, the less valuable yours is because there’s less of it left.’
Jonathan Sumption, who sat on the Supreme Court until 2018, made the comment while appearing on the BBC’s The Big Questions this morning (pictured)
He might just have got away with his observation but for Deborah James.
She’s 39, has two children and stage-four bowel cancer. She challenged him. Did that mean her life was less valuable?
Sumption said he wasn’t talking about her life, but his. He’s 72. But it was too late. The damage had been done.
Ms James piled on the agony: ‘Who are you to put a value on life? In my view, life is sacred and I don’t think we should make those judgment calls.’
In a battle between a brave young mother who has had 17 tumours in her frail body and a hale and hearty retired judge, there could only be one victor. Sumption was made to look a heartless beast. But was he?
What he was doing was challenging one of the most basic tenets of belief in Judeo-Christian societies. It says: human life is of absolute value. Hence Ms James using the word ‘sacred’.
Miss James (pictured in hospital), from London , known as Bowel Babe, has had 17 tumours in her lifetime and had her latest cancer operation just six weeks ago
We cannot judge one human life to be more or less valuable than another. It follows that human rights, too, are absolute.
It is a seductive argument. Once we accept that some people are worth less than others, we open the door to disposing of them. This way lies true horrors. Genocide and the Holocaust. Eugenics. Getting rid of the disabled or mentally ill. Even letting the very old die if they become too big a pain in the neck.
There is no such thing as a decent society in which the powerful are allowed to discriminate against ‘less valuable’ humans.
If that’s why Ms James used the word ‘sacred’ she was right. Where she went wrong was to claim that you cannot put a value on human life. Our political leaders do it all the time. So do their advisers and civil servants.
Consider ‘smart’ motorways. As every motorist knows, hundreds of miles of hard shoulders have been turned into live lanes. If you break down you must try to get to one of the emergency refuge areas. Not everyone succeeds. Many have died. This week, following an inquest into two of the deaths, the coroner wrote to the Transport Secretary saying smart motorways are dangerous and the Government must think again.
Deborah James, the 39-year-old mother of two challenged Lord Sumption
But it is inconceivable that when the policy was originally put forward the possibility of more accidents — and therefore more deaths — was not considered.
The prospect of the economic benefits gained from traffic moving more swiftly at relatively low cost won the argument.
That’s also why the speed limit is 70 mph, even though lives would be saved by cutting it to 60 mph. A price is put on life.
In one of his greatest poems, T. S. Eliot wrote: ‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.’
The NHS measures out our lives, too, but it uses something called ‘qalys’ — or quality-adjusted life years. One qaly, according to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), is about £30,000.
You may ask why anyone, let alone the NHS, should have to engage in such gruesome arithmetic. Here’s why.
Let’s assume a new drug is developed that transforms the lives of people with a hideous form of cancer. Wonderful news — except that it’s hugely expensive and the NHS budget is not infinite.
Do you give it to the 70-year-old, whose remaining life in qalys might be ‘worth’, say, £250,000, or to the 20-year-old? Or the ten-year-old? It’s not easy, but there can surely be only one answer.
Lord Sumption (left) was discussing the cost of lockdown on the show and argued that he believed his children’s and grandchildren’s lives were worth more than his ‘because they’ve got a lot more of it ahead’. Miss James (right) – who suffers with Stage 4 metastatic bowel cancer – was brought into the discussion as a younger person with a life-threatening condition.
Covid has made these calculations infinitely more complex. No one can possibly know yet how much the lockdowns have cost the country. The bills rocket with every day that passes. What we do know is that if we applied the qaly test to the lives ‘saved’, we would no longer be talking about £30,000 a year. It would be many times that amount.
The price of even the most expensive new drug is a drop in the ocean compared to the vast cost of closing down half the nation’s economy — and the bill is rising with every word I type.
So does that mean the life of someone who faces the risk of dying from Covid must be valued more than those who have other life-threatening conditions?
Many people have died because they’ve been unable to get the treatment they needed. Hard-headed calculations were presented to policy-makers who knew what the consequences of lockdowns would be but they took them anyway.
In other words, they put a price on life.
We can — and will — debate the morality of all this until the cows come home, but the judgment was reached a very long time ago. All lives are not equal.
Lord Sumption was right about something else, too: the right to make his own decision about his own life.
It’s 60 years since this country changed the law that made suicide a crime. It is still, though, a crime for a doctor to help someone to die. And that is wrong.
I know two people — women in their 90s — who are in the final stages of dementia. They inhabit a living hell and they cannot get better. Did I write ‘living’? One of them has been bed-bound for years. She must be fed through tubes. She is capable of breathing. That’s all. Does she even know she is alive? Who can say?
When she became ill with a life-threatening infection last year she was rushed to hospital for treatment and, eventually, returned to her living hell. Is her life ‘sacred’?
Captain Tom, the nation’s Covid hero who became Sir Tom, told Piers Morgan that he’d had a bad fall at his home and when they took him to hospital he had a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ notice pinned to his door. He said: ‘I did not want to finish up in an old people’s home without any faculties of my own, having to be fed in every way. I would hate ever to be like that.’
Sir Tom went on to do great things but he knew what his life was worth to him. And he wants to be the person who makes that judgment.