‘Free choice’ put to the test
Thursday, 1st October 2020 — By John Gulliver
Lord Sumption. Photo: Cambridge Law Faculty
WHAT is the meaning of individual liberty? What is the meaning of “free choice”?
These are the challenges thrown down a lot these days by many opposed to the government’s new laws on controlling public gatherings in the battle against Covid-19.
Leading a wave of dissent is the former leading jurist Jonathan Sumption, who has had full-page features in the Mail on Sunday and long TV interviews.
He argues that while measures should be taken to protect the elderly in care homes so that individuals do not have the final say as to who should be allowed to see them, those elderly and ill – who live at home on their own, and, admittedly, are vulnerable to the deadly entrails of the virus – should be allowed to take their own decisions as to how to conduct their lives. All contrary to government laws and how most of our scientists think.
At one point, this is a seductive argument but Sumption forgets a great many millions of our population who are not part of the elderly population – the many black and brown people, many of them young and middle-aged, who, through cultural and genetic history are prone to such illnesses as diabetes and thus could be badly damaged, if not life-threatened, by the virus that seizes on that condition.
Or take the hundreds of thousands if not millions of young white citizens who have a variety of illnesses and conditions all of which mean they are vulnerable to the assault of the virus. I know several such youngsters all of whom deserve the protection of the sort of rules the government is trying to impose.
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Scientists in the Asian world realise it is easier because of the ancient cultural habits of the people of Far East Asia, such as in South Korea, China or Japan, to implement nationwide controls which they have done successfully.
But here in Europe, in our individualistic society, where individual freedom is part of the culture of the past few hundred years, it is much more difficult.
Hence, young people here may feel completely independent of the rest of the society, unaware that though the virus hardly affects them, if they are healthy, they can act as transmitters to those in the nation who can be made very ill by the disease if not fatally afflicted by it.
But the government has decimated the National Health Service so much over the years, and broken up such a well-tried system of public health – Camden led the way in the 1970s onwards with its public health service – that I cannot see how the track and trace systems, whatever apps are used, can control the spread of the disease.
It’s simply not a question of testing for Covid-19 but then isolating it – and all done on a mass organised scale. This, in my opinion, is beyond this government which is using private companies – all friends and contacts of politicians – without any real experience, to carry out the tests while public health labs are underused.
I believe specialists at the Francis Crick Institute in King’s Cross are carrying out tests on a large scale on staff at hospitals, care centres etc. But its chief, Sir Paul Nurse, has been critical of government policies in the past six months – and if anyone should know the strengths and weaknesses of national policy it is Sir Paul. I suspect the Crick is not being used as much as it should be.
Until the government comes to its senses the system will be seen to fail and more and more people will lose patience in the direction Boris Johnson is trying to take the nation. And thus question the imposition of curbs on so-called individual freedoms.