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Ex-pensions minister warns of ‘social unrest’ if over-70s forced to stay in after coronavirus lockdown lifted

Baroness Altman said it would be ‘fundamentally wrong’ to ease restrictions on the basis of age.

4 min read

There could be “social unrest” if the over-70s are told to stay in coronavirus lockdown while younger people return to work, a former pensions minister has warned.

Conservative peer Baroness Ros Altman spoke out against any “blanket ban” on older people leaving the house - and said some would “risk going to prison rather than being forced to isolate at home“.

The intervention comes as ministers weigh up how to begin easing the strict social distancing restrictions over the coming months.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to flesh out the Government’s thinking following the latest three-weekly review of the measures on Thursday.

Although the Government is remaining tight-lipped on what the next phase of the lockdown will look like, it has been reported those aged over 70 could be told to stay at home for another year under plans to shield them from the virus.

But the former pensions minister told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “I certainly hope that when we move out of the current emergency phase of lockdown there won’t be some kind of blanket policy to forbid people of any age particular age from leaving their own homes or from being part of the community.

“I think using an age-based criteria would be fundamentally wrong and actually would potentially cost the lives of many people and risks social unrest.”

Baroness Altman said any blanket restrictions on the over-70s would constitute “age discrimination” as she insisted most older people “would be sensible enough to know when they need to stay at home and also to know when they need to go out” without a wide-ranging order from ministers.

“Certainly lots of them have told me that they would rebel and they would risk going to prison rather than being forced to isolate at home" - Baroness Altman

“If the government wants to advise people and say, ‘look if you’re more at risk don’t consider going out unless it’s vital’, that’s different from formally mandating that people of a certain must all be locked up as if they’re a homogenous group… and as if their lives don’t count in the same way as others,” the Tory peer said.

And she added: “There are so many over-70s who can’t bear the thought of having to stay in lockdown a moment longer and have accapted it obviously because everyone else has got to do it. 

“But if they’re fit and healthy and they need to get out for their own sanity and for their own physical health then the idea that the overnment will tell them you are under house arrest while everybody is free and you’re forced into solitary confinement... then I think that they wouldn’t accept it.

“Certainly lots of them have told me that they would rebel and they would risk going to prison rather than being forced to isolate at home.”

The warning comes after both the British Medical Association and the Royal College of GPs spoke out against any moves to restrict older people while allowing others to go free.
Martin Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, told The Sunday Times: “GPs are finding that many patients who are currently ‘shielding’ are expressing concern about their ability to continue extreme isolation for a long period, and this needs to be taken into account as plans for how the lockdown will continue are formulated.”

Meanwhile the BMA said the Government should ensure “those at highest risk from infection are protected”, but warned: “This needs to be based on individual risk that would apply at all ages rather than an arbitrary age of 60 or 70.”

Former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell said: “If we were imposing rules based entirely on personal risk then we would be tougher on men, ethnic minorities, non-smokers, and those with relevant other health problems.”

Research carried out for the Government by Imperial College London shows the risk of dying from Covid-19 increases with age, with an estimated five percent of infected people in their 70s dying from the virus, a figure that rises to nine percent for the over-80s.

Public Health England advice currently deems those aged 70 or older as “clinically vulnerable”, meaning they should “take particular care to minimise contact with others” outside of their immediate households. 

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