If you are aged 90 or over and get ill, don’t go to hospital. You are not likely to survive and will only be clogging it up, says former UK Government Chief Science Advisor, Professor Sir David King.  Speaking to the Telegraph, he said that not only were many people of that age unlikely to survive, “there is a risk that you are overburdening the NHS. We really don’t want 90-year-olds clogging up hospitals at this critical time.”[i]

His statement reveals a blatantly ageist attitude, and one that is out of touch with what’s happening on the ground.

Last week, in Italy, medics celebrated the recovery of 95 year old Alma Clara Corsini, and without antiviral therapy, according to the Gazetta Di Modena. In China a patient recovered in time to celebrate his 101st birthday, and was discharged almost at the same time as a 98 year old woman, Hu Hanying.  

This morning a smiling son posted a picture of himself and his mother on Facebook, saying, ‘This is me with my mum, she has survived Hitler open heart surgery, 2 replacement knees and 2 replacement hips. Few weeks ago she fell fractured her hip, 2 ribs and her spine. Last week she was diagnosed with Covid 19 and spent a week in intensive care.  She is 86.   Today she has been given the all clear.  This is the sort of thing the media should be concentrating on – there is hope,  people!’

These are just a few examples. Using someone’s age is a very easy way for people to make decisions, but it’s not the right way,” said Ruthe Isden, the head of health at Age UK. “People’s health varies hugely at the same age – you might see a 90-year-old running a marathon, for example. ‘These difficult decisions should be made by clinicians with the individuals themselves. It’s not helpful for anyone to make these calls according to arbitrary across the board rules.”

Perhaps someone should tell Professor King about the official guidelines issued this week to NHS intensive care doctors on how to decide which coronavirus patients should get critical care by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE).  The NICE guidance does not categorise patients by age but instead asks doctors to score patients on a nine-point “clinical frailty scale” [CFS] .The NICE algorithm divides patients at a score of five, from the ‘Very Fit’ people who are “robust, active, energetic and motivated”, and who “exercise regularly”, to, at the other end, with a score of nine, the “Terminally ill”. Those scoring over five are put through a process where doctors must decide if critical care is “considered appropriate” before proceeding. (See below[ii]

It’s not a question for individuals and families, it’s a question for doctors, says Caroline Abrahams, from Age UK.

The really sad thing is that people aged 90-plus are the ones who would voluntarily self-sacrifice, anyway.  They are the generation that survived the great depression and sacrificed much in the last war and in building up the country afterwards.   They’re known as ‘the Great Generation’ – the stiff upper lip people, known for their work ethic, financial prudence and humility.  They don’t shout about themselves.  They’re the ones Professor King would throw on the ash-tip today.  I hope someone has  a word with him.

[i] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/03/26/over-90s-should-not-clog-nhs-hospitals-coronavirus-outbreak/

[ii] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/global-health/science-and-disease/revealed-official-guidance-doctors-decide-coronavirus-patients/


Louise Morse

Louise Morse MA (CBT) is media and external relations manager for the Pilgrims’ Friend Society. She is a writer and speaker, and author of books on issues of old age, including dementia, published by Lion Monarch and SPCK. She is a cognitive behavioural therapist, and her Masters’ dissertation examined the effects of caring for a loved one with dementia on close relatives.

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