Coronavirus: Former Supreme Court justice warns of 'collective hysteria' over outbreak

'We are working ourselves up into a lather in which we exaggerate the threat and stop asking ourselves whether the cure may be worse than the disease'

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
Monday 30 March 2020 16:46 BST
Former Supreme Court judge warns of 'collective hysteria' over coronavirus

The public is whipping itself into "collective hysteria" over the coronavirus outbreak, a former Supreme Court justice has warned.

Lord Sumption, who served on the UK's highest court until 2018, said people were working themselves "into a lather" over the threat of coronavirus - and should ask themselves "whether the cure may be worse than the disease".

In an outspoken criticism of the response to the outbreak, Lord Sumption said extreme measures to prevent the spread of the virus risked turning the country into a "police state".

It comes after the deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries said restrictions on daily life could last for up to six months, with social distancing measures to remain in place even if the lockdown is lifted.

Lord Sumption told The World At One: "The pressure on politicians has come from the public, they want action.

"They don't pause to ask whether the action will work, they don't ask themselves whether the cost will be worth paying - they want action anyway.

"Anyone who has studied history will recognise here the classic symptoms of collective hysteria.

"Hysteria is infectious. We are working ourselves up into a lather in which we exaggerate the threat and stop asking ourselves whether the cure may be worse than the disease."

Lord Sumption said the threat of coronavirus was significant but questioned whether the measures brought in were equal to the risks.

He added: "Yes, this is serious, and, yes, it's understandable that people cry out to the government, but the real question is, is this serious enough to warrant putting most of our population into house imprisonment, wrecking our economy for an indefinite period, destroying businesses that honest and hard-working people have taken years to build up, saddling future generations with debt?

"Depressions, stress, heart attacks, suicides and unbelievable stress inflicted on millions of people who are not especially vulnerable and will suffer only mild symptoms or none at all - like the health secretary and the prime minister."

He also criticised police forces for over zealously interpreting government advice on lock down measures, with reports of officers preventing people from buying "non-essential" items or walking in the countryside.

Derbyshire Police has attracted particular criticism for warning people against walking in the Peak District and for dumping black dye into the Blue Lagoon, a local beauty spot, to prevent people from gathering.

Lord Sumption said: "I have to say that the behaviour of Derbyshire Police in trying to shame people in using their undoubted right to travel to take exercise in the country and wrecking beauty spots in the fells so people don't want to go there is frankly disgraceful.

"This is what a police state is like. It's a state in which the government can issue orders or express preferences with no legal authority and the police will enforce ministers' wishes."

On Sunday, Dr Harries said the nation will not be in "complete lockdown" for half a year but said measures will be lifted gradually.

The nation's sacrifice could be "wasted" if the lockdown was lifted too quickly and led to another spike in deaths, she said.

But Professor Neil Ferguson, one of the government's advisers on the crisis, said he believe the "epidemic is just about slowing in the UK right now" as a result of lockdown measures.

Prof Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, said: "In the UK we can see some early signs in slowing in some indicators, less so in deaths because deaths are lagged by a long time from when measures come in force.

"But if we look at the numbers of new hospital admissions per day for instance, that does appear to be slowing down a little bit now.

"It's not yet plateaued so still the numbers can be increasing each day but the rate of that increase has slowed."

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