Why is the UK only defining those over-70 as requiring shielding during the Coronavirus pandemic, in contradiction to guidance from the World Health Organisation?

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The Government is diverging from World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines to treat people over 60 as requiring shielding from COVID-19 because it believes that the guidance should only apply to developing nations and not the UK.

Instead, the Government is sticking to defining people over 70 as being the main group at risk.

According to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, this means that some 7.8 million people aged between 60 and 70 in the UK are not currently designated as at risk.

Public Health England’s approach is that “WHO provides a global overview and therefore needs to accommodate an age definition of older people that would not just apply to developed nations but also to developing countries where life expectancy and health in older ages are very different”.

But, this reasoning is refuted by WHO, which has stated: “This is based on our main guidance which has been developed based on our main findings and severity per age group, such as from the WHO-China joint mission report, which found out that based on the data available ‘individuals at highest risk for severe disease and death include people aged over 60 years and those with underlying conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease and cancer’.”

These results are also confirmed by WHO’s European analysis at the beginning of April which found that “95% of deaths were in persons aged 60 years and older”. Italy, France and Spain accounted for 74% of all deaths. None of these countries would be regarded as developing nations.

Dr Bharat Pankhania, Senior Clinical Lecturer at University of Exeter Medical School, said: “The Italian figures for deaths include Lombardy one of the wealthiest parts of Italy. Statistical charts in Italy show a step change in deaths from someone in their 50s to their 60s. The only reason for not following the guidelines must be economic because a lot of people in their 60s are still in work.”

The website Statista has a chart showing a jump in the death rate for COVID-19 in Italy from 2.5% for someone in their 50s to 9.2% for someone over-60. Figures for the over-70s and 80s are substantially higher, with more than 30% of people in their 80s dying.

Pensions Plight

The plight of people in their 60s in the UK has been made worse by the rapid rise in the pension age, particularly for women born in the 1950s and more recently for men. The pension age will become 66 this October. This has left some 4.3 million people in their 60s still at work – 2.22 million are women who would have got their pensions at 60 and some 335,000 are men hit by the rise in their pension age from 65 to 66. 

Some have lost work, others are working in the NHS.

Tony and Lesley Smith, from Leicestershire, are one example. Both were working but are now left with no income. Lesley, 61, was a self-employed hairdresser working mainly in care homes. Her income dropped to zero. Tony was working on contract for a communications company, which has stopped trading, as its main business was promoting festivals and the Edinburgh Fringe, which have now been cancelled.

Both are fortunate to have some savings but have no hope of getting any money until June under the current Government scheme. Both would have been claiming pensions.

Tony said: “We are now thinking short-term, as against looking for a better life long term.”

Pam Parsons, a 64-year-old health worker, lives with her daughter Hollie, a senior care worker. Pam has been asked to self isolate for 12 weeks as she has severe asthma but, for the past week, she has had to look after her daughter at home who has the Coronavirus symptoms – without either of them being tested. Hollie was sent home from work after developing a persistent cough and losing her sense of taste. She had been in contact with confirmed COVID-19 cases and had also been at a local community hospital.

Pam said: “After a couple of hours, she starting getting really severe headaches and couldn’t lift her head off the pillow, we contacted 111 who advised only to self-isolate and to call back should her symptoms worsen. Later in the evening, Hollie starting getting chest pain and difficulty breathing. We called 111 back and after lengthy conversations with clinicians she was asked could she get to hospital but not to drive herself.”

Instead, after a paramedic check, they chose to stay at home – fearful that going to a hospital COVID-19 ward would expose her to a high viral load of the Coronavirus. Luckily, because of their jobs, they had a supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) at home.

“It was a terrifying time… she is my daughter and she was poorly and our natural instinct is to protect and make better, but I was also very conscious of the risk to myself should I become ill.”

Hollie returned to work today and will no longer live with her mother.


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