Saturday, May 30, 2020

The greatest interference with liberty in our history

Former Supreme Court judge LORD SUMPTION gives a withering critique of the Government's lockdown | The Mail on Sunday - Jonathan Sumption:

May 2, 2020 - "COVID-19 is not the greatest crisis in our history. It is not even the greatest public health crisis in our history. But the lockdown is without doubt the greatest interference with personal liberty in our history.... Even in wartime, we never confined the entire population to their homes, 24/7, if they did not have some excuse acceptable to a Minister.

"States have always tried to confine people known to be carrying dangerous infections. But we live in a new world in which, if we are ill, the State will try to cure us. From this, it is said to follow that the State can take control of our lives against our will even if we are healthy, lest we fall ill and need its services too much. Suddenly, it is our duty to save the NHS, not the other way round.

"It is now pointless to object to the imposition of the lockdown in the first place.... The question is how we get out of it. It is a pity that the Government did not ask itself that question when, in the blind panic following the delivery of Imperial College London's Professor Neil Ferguson's statistical projections, it legislated the lockdown on the hoof in a late-night press conference. They now find themselves trapped by their own decisions.

"Ministers have formulated five tests to be satisfied before the lockdown is lifted. What is wrong with these tests is that they are all about health and only about health.... They think that this will allow them to avoid criticism by sheltering behind the scientists. But that is just an evasion of political responsibility.... Ending the lockdown is a political decision, not a scientific one.  It boils down to a single question. Is it worth it? That depends only partly on the science. There are also moral judgments, constitutional values and economic consequences involved.

"First, the medical issue. I am not going to argue about Professor Ferguson's projections. They have caused some discomfort among reputable professionals. They are based on some rather arbitrary assumptions. And they leave out of the account important considerations, such as the adverse health consequences of the lockdown itself or the number of people who would have died anyway from underlying clinical conditions even without Covid-19....

"Second, we need to ask how many deaths we are prepared to accept in order to preserve other things that we value.... To say that life is priceless and nothing else counts is just empty rhetoric. People say it because it is emotionally comfortable and avoids awkward dilemmas. But they don't actually believe it. We went to war in 1939 because lives were worth losing for liberty. We allow cars on the roads because lives are worth losing for convenience. We travel by air although pollution kills. We tut-tut about it, but we willingly do it.

"Third question. What sort of life do we think we are protecting? There is more to life than the avoidance of death. Life is a drink with friends ... a crowded football match or a live concert ... a family celebration with children and grandchildren ...  companionship, an arm around one's back, laughter or tears shared at less than two metres. These things are not just optional extras. They are life itself. They are fundamental to our humanity, to our existence as social beings. Of course death is permanent, whereas joy may be temporarily suspended. But the force of that point depends on how temporary it really is....

"Fourth, there is the money question. People decry attempts to measure the mortality of Covid-19 against the economic cost of reducing it. But this too is rhetoric, and hypocritical rhetoric at that.... You and I and the editor of The Guardian and the driver of the No 9 bus and the Archbishop of Canterbury and the cashier at the supermarket all value and depend on money. Not just in the sense that it pays our wages or pensions.... A thriving economy, of the kind that we are now throwing away, is the source of our security and the foundation of our children's future. We would do well not to sneer at it. Poverty kills too. And when it does not kill, it maims, mentally, physically and socially.

"Last but not least, we have to ask ourselves what are the limits to the things that the State can legitimately do to people against their will in a liberal democracy. To say that there are no limits is the stuff of tyrants.... One of the more impressive observations of the Swedish epidemiologist Professor Johann Giesecke, in the interview in which he justified Sweden's refusal to lock its people down, was ... that there are some things that may work and that a totalitarian state like China can do. But a country like Sweden with its long liberal tradition cannot do them unless it wants to become like China.

"We, too, have to ask ourselves what kind of relationship we want with the State. Do we really want to be the kind of society where basic freedoms are conditional on the decisions of politicians in thrall to scientists and statisticians? Where human beings are just tools of public policy? A society in which the Government can confine most of the population without controversy is not one in which civilised people would want to live, regardless of their answers to these questions....

"Not everyone will agree, which is fair enough. These are difficult value judgments, on which one would not expect general agreement. The fundamental point is that these questions need to be confronted and publicly discussed by politicians without the kind of emotive evasions, propagandist slogans and generalised hype that have characterised their contribution so far."

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