Overturning Sumptions

One of the most senior British spokemen against lockdowns, Lord Sumption, has (we are told) been discredited after exposure as a cruel and callous fascist in a TV discussion.

Sumption is a retired Supreme Court judge and one of the greatest legal minds in Britain, and so his warnings about the dangers, and even illegality, of the curtailment of our freedoms has carried a good deal of weight.

It was therefore necessary to get him cancelled somehow, and the fatuousness of the criticisms against him, celebrated by the whole main stream press as the end of his dissident game – probably rightly in the current totalitarian climate – demonstrates that his cancellation was an orchestrated effort. That was confirmed to me by his subsequent appearance on Good Morning Britain with Piers Morgan, in which he was repeatedly muted half way through his considered responses as Morgan interrupted with irrelevant hypothetical individual cases. Sumption, of course, had been talking about nationwide public health policies, which is why the programme was called The Big Questions.

I’ve not seen the original broadcast, but I gather that when Sumption rightly said that for the NHS to sacrifice very many young lives in order, ostensibly, to prolong those of the vulnerable elderly for a few months, is utterly foolish. I gather that a 39-year old BBC presenter, Deborah James, sadly suffering from Stage 4 cancer, objected that when Sumption said his children’s and grandchildren’s lives were more valuable, in the health economics sense, than his own, he was saying her life was not valuable.

I’m not sure if he was even aware of her health issues, but he replied that he was referring to his life, not hers, but that in any case he was saying “less valuable,” rather than “not valuable.” Perhaps he should have added something like “…in health economics terms.” In a serious discussion such a caveat would be taken for granted, but on the BBC One Show, when it purports to be discussing “big questions” it’s actually playing to mass emotion for an ideological purpose.

Clearly, in context (oh, how lacking that is in 2021) the comparison he made between his own 72 years of age, and the children and grandchildren in his example could logically also be applied to the 39 year old with regard to her children and, conceivably, grandchildren. He and she would be on the same side of the equation.

But the discussion was about COVID policy, and the contrast he had actually stated was between “the elderly” and “the young.” It is pretty clear that in that context, the cancer sufferer is a textbook expression of his specific point, for she is young enough to be one of his own children in the example, and might, like many now, have been denied cancer treatment because of the current restrictions. If a choice had to be made, would one rather be spending funds on her stage 4 cancer treatment, or on Lord Sumption’s treatment for COVID? Or to put it another way, if she had been unable to get access to cancer treatment because he was occupying the bed, would she not consider something was unfair?

But the kind of question someone should have been asking, had the aim not been to cancel Lord Sumption for questioning the narrative, was whether this lady would insist that her own cancer treatment must be continued, were her own small child sick and unable to access treatment because of hers. That is, of course, a no-brainer. At the emotional level, it is instinctive for parents, and especially mothers, to be willing to sacrifice their own lives to save their children. If they have to justify it beyond the biological, they will say that they have had at least a good portion of their life, whereas their child has not had the chance to experience most of life’s joys.

This, of course, is the underlying basis on which all health economics deals with concepts such as QUALYs, or Quality Added Life Years. As Lord Sumption absolutely correctly says, to put a numerical value on the quality of a life is just a way of making rational policy possible. The alternative would be endless discussions in committees like Piers Morgan’s specious hypotheticals:

“Suppose a 99 year old comes in with a broken leg and signs a ‘do not resuscitate’ notice” wrongly thinking he’s dying? What is his life worth?”

“Ah yes, but what about a 23 year old AIDS sufferer with a good job, but no children?”

When I was a GP, I objected to QUALYs being thrown at me by NHS directors because my particular job was treating the human being in front of me, and not making national health policy. It is similar to the difference being an infantryman wanting to fight (and if necessary kill!) and survive, and a general having to plan the battle, knowing that many infantrymen will die. Yet even the decent infantryman will sacrifice his life to save his mates. These are all practical outworkings of differential values of life, if you want to put it that way, consistent with a genuine belief that human life is sacred.

But as a professional, I was aware that there have to be generals as well as privates, and the game was played through the things I was permitted to prescribe, and those deemed uneconomic. That still left me free to argue on behalf of a particular individual in special circumstances.

In Sumption’s particular example, the problem was presented as his (or the cancer sufferer’s) individual life against that of their children. The real choices are not so individual – what is actually at stake is thousands of elderly people vulnerable to COVID and thousands whose illnesses may not be addressed if the former are prioritized. Even so, the individual lives involved invite comparison.

Lord Sumption, aged 72, fully retired from a full life with a wife of a similar age who is undoubtedly financially secure, and children grown up and provided for.

Deborah James, aged 39, with a valuable career in broadcasting and journalism, probably having a mortgage, a loving husband who was not expecting to lose her for another half-life-time, and at least one small child (I believe) he would have to raise alone and motherless if she died. She may well also have two sets of increasingly dependent parents. And she would be concerned about the education and future prospects of her child, should health policy saddle the nation with £2 trillion of debt. Woops, it has.

To which of those would you send a donation if they had to pay for their treatment? The reality-free emotional response, of course, is “both” because, according to Deborah, all life is equally sacred. But if that is so, why are wards closed to so many non-COVID patients, and so many of them dying? It is because, in real life, as Lord Sumption rightly said, resources are not infinite and the government has made choices. He argues they are the wrong choices. And it’s pretty clear that the UK media would be less willing to allocate scarce reources to the people they are eager to mute or deplatform.

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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