In order to prevent the rapid spread of COVID-19, governments have placed significant restrictions on liberty, including preventing all non-essential travel. These restrictions were justified on the basis the health system may be overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases and in order to prevent deaths. Governments are now considering how they may de-escalate these restrictions. This article argues that an appropriate approach may be to lift the general lockdown but implement selective isolation of the elderly. While this discriminates against the elderly, there (...) is a morally relevant difference—the elderly are far more likely to require hospitalisation and die than the rest of the population. If the aim is to ensure the health system is not overwhelmed and to reduce the death rate, preventing the elderly from contracting the virus may be an effective means of achieving this. The alternative is to continue to keep everyone in lockdown. It is argued that this is levelling down equality and is unethical. It suggests that in order for the elderly to avoid contracting the virus, the whole population should have their liberty deprived, even though the same result could be achieved by only restricting the liberty of the elderly. Similar arguments may also be applied to all groups at increased risk of COVID-19, such as men and those with comorbidities, the obese and people from ethnic minorities or socially deprived groups. This utilitarian concern must be balanced against other considerations, such as equality and justice, and the benefits gained from discriminating in these ways must be proportionately greater than the negative consequences of doing so. Such selective discrimination will be most justified when the liberty restriction to a group promotes the well-being of that group (apart from its wider social benefits). (shrink)
Liberty-restricting measures have been implemented for centuries to limit the spread of infectious diseases. This article considers if and when it may be ethically acceptable to impose selective liberty-restricting measures in order to reduce the negative impacts of a pandemic by preventing particularly vulnerable groups of the community from contracting the disease. We argue that the commonly accepted explanation—that liberty restrictions may be justified to prevent harm to others when this is the least restrictive option—fails to adequately accommodate the complexity (...) of the issue or the difficult choices that must be made, as illustrated by the COVID-19 pandemic. We introduce a dualist consequentialist approach, weighing utility at both a population and individual level, which may provide a better framework for considering the justification for liberty restrictions. While liberty-restricting measures may be justified on the basis of significant benefits to the population and small costs for overall utility to individuals, the question of whether it is acceptable to discriminate should be considered separately. This is because the consequentialist approach does not adequately account for the value of equality. This value may be protected through the application of an additional proportionality test. An algorithm for making decisions is proposed. Ultimately whether selective liberty-restricting measures are imposed will depend on a range of factors, including how widespread infection is in the community, the level of risk and harm a society is willing to accept, and the efficacy and cost of other mitigation options. (shrink)
There is a concern that as a result of COVID-19 there will be a shortage of ventilators for patients requiring respiratory support. This concern has resulted in significant debate about whether it is appropriate to withdraw ventilation from one patient in order to provide it to another patient who may benefit more. The current advice available to doctors appears to be inconsistent, with some suggesting withdrawal of treatment is more serious than withholding, while others suggest that this distinction should not (...) be made. We argue that there is no ethically relevant difference between withdrawing and withholding treatment and that suggesting otherwise may have problematic consequences. If doctors are discouraged from withdrawing treatment, concern about a future shortage may make them reluctant to provide ventilation to patients who are unlikely to have a successful outcome. This may result in underutilisation of available resources. A national policy is urgently required to provide doctors with guidance about how patients should be prioritised to ensure the maximum benefit is derived from limited resources. (shrink)
When is life-sustaining treatment not in the best interests of a minimally conscious child? This is an extremely difficult question that incites seemingly intractable debate. And yet, it is the question courts in England and Wales have set out to answer in disputes about appropriate medical treatment for children.