A former Supreme Court judge has been criticised after telling a woman with stage 4 bowel cancer her life was “less valuable” than others during an on-screen discussion on the price of coronavirus lockdowns.
Jonathan Sumption, a prominent anti-lockdown campaigner, made the comments during a BBC One programme on Sunday while responding to a question posed by host Nicky Campbell on whether lockdown was “punishing too many for the greater good”.
Explaining on The Big Questions he did not believe “all lives are of equal value”, the former justice said his children’s and grandchildren’s lives were “worth more because they’ve got a lot more of it ahead”.
Brought into the discussion as a younger person with a debilitating disease, 39-year-old Deborah James, who 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.”
Lord Sumption, 72, who sat on the Supreme Court until 2018, interrupted Ms James, who has stage 4 metastatic bowel cancer, saying: “I didn’t say your life was not valuable, I said it was less valuable.”
Ms James replied: “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.”
Shocked viewers took to social media to discuss the exchange, with some branding Lord Sumption “horrible”, “inhumane” and “morally bankrupt”.
Human rights barrister Adam Wagner said: “This is the figurehead of anti-lockdown movement – comes across as inhumane, almost grotesque.”
Employment and personal injury barrister David Green said he would “swap every brain-cell in my head to avoid being as horrible as [Sumption] evidently is”.
Meanwhile, NHS mental health doctor Benjamin Janaway labelled the comments “abhorrent”, “thoughtless” and “devoid of empathy”.
Lord Sumption did, however, have some people on his side. The controversial talkRadio presenter Julia Hartley-Brewer called cries against the peer “rubbish”.
“If you had the chance to save only one person from a fire and had to choose between an eight-year-old and an 80-year-old, you know perfectly well which one you’d save,” she said.
“It doesn’t mean all lives don’t have value, it’s about relative value when tough decisions have to be made.”
Lord Sumption has since said the comments were “taken out of context”, telling the Daily Mail : “I object extremely strongly to any suggestion that I was inferring that Miss James’s life was less valuable because she had cancer.
“I thought she was responding to my earlier comments about older people being protected by a total lockdown which is causing immense harm to the young who are unaffected”.
Appearing to blame the misunderstanding on the video technology the pair spoke over, he said: “If [Ms James] has misinterpreted that then I can only apologise to her as it was not my intention to suggest she was less valuable. Sometimes on videolinks it can be difficult to hear what the other person is saying.”
During the BBC programme, Lord Sumption was also challenged by guests Catherine Foot, from the Centre for Ageing Better, and Calum Semple, a professor of child health and outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool – plus the show’s host, Mr Campbell.
While Ms Foot said she “shuddered” at Lord Sumption’s suggestion that all lives were not equal, Prof Semple said the former justice’s remarks that government action had “virtually no impact” on mortality rates were “plain wrong”.
Mr Campbell hit back at Lord Sumption’s argument that only the “old and vulnerable” should isolate, saying this was an “utterly simplistic” solution because vulnerability includes a broad spectrum of people – of all ages.
The outspoken Lord Sumption has been critical of restrictions enforced to limit the spread of coronavirus during the pandemic, calling such measures “tyrannical” and “a monument of collective hysteria and folly”.