People over the age of 90 should think twice about going into hospital during the coronavirus outbreak to avoid “clogging up” the NHS, the former chief scientific adviser has suggested.
Professor Sir David King urged frail elderly people to consider refusing hospital treatment during the crisis because their chances of survival were slim.
But charities representing older people criticised his remarks and said patients should be offered the same standards of life-saving care regardless of their age.
It comes as under-pressure hospitals across the country begin drawing up plans to ration ventilators and intensive care beds, with priority given to younger and healthier patients.
“I think it’s fair to ask people in the region of 90 or 95 years old to think twice before going into hospital under the present circumstances,” Sir David told The Telegraph. “At the very least, they should be consulting their GP before making that decision.
“The truth is that people of that age are, in many cases, unlikely to come out of hospital once they go in. And of course 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.”
Sir David, 80, the nation’s chief scientific adviser under both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, led the response to the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001, and has since become a leading figure in the climate change movement.
Age charities called his remarks “unhelpful” and said hospitals should not be using age as a criteria for refusing admission. “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.”
Coronavirus is known to pose a far greater risk of death to elderly people than younger and healthier patients. According to official Government modelling produced by Imperial College, more than a quarter of infected people over 80 are likely to require hospital treatment, with nearly three-quarters of those needing a bed in intensive care.
NHS trusts across the country are already drawing up plans to restrict ventilators and critical beds to patients with the best survival chances as wards become overwhelmed during the outbreak.
One senior director at a London acute trust said last week: “We are going to have to quickly agree some clinical thresholds for admissions to intensive care. This is what the Italians have had to do and, whether it’s set at 60 or whatever, we are going to have to do something similar. There’s no way we’re going to be able to scale up to the level we need otherwise.”
Sir David, who led a major pandemic preparedness exercise during his time as a Government adviser, also claimed Britain’s current lockdown had been “prolonged” by the current Government’s failure to take action sooner.
“In a pandemic, you can’t wait. If we’d acted earlier, we might have been out of the current situation much sooner,” he said. “The message of risk management was very damaging, I think. Once you knew what was happening in China, the simplest and easiest strategy was to follow what they were doing – complete lockdown.
“What we now see is the overwhelming of the National Health Service. Our hospitals are not in a situation to cope with the pace of this outbreak.”
An NHS England spokesman said: “As the chief medical officer has said, as coronavirus expands the NHS will flex its response in line with well-established escalation plans.”