Last month, Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said older people would be ‘shielded for their own protection’ – Leon Neal/Getty Images Europe

The over-70s cannot be told to continue isolating once Britain’s coronavirus lockdown measures are eased, a Sage scientific adviser has suggested.

Last month, Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said older people would be “shielded for their own protection”, meaning those aged 70 and over could be asked to stay at home for up to four months to protect themselves from the risk of coronavirus. 

However, a scientist on a sub-committee of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) board, has called for “more reformed and nuanced” guidance. 

Susan Michie, professor of health psychology and sirector of the Centre for Behaviour Change at UCL, said: “The guidance is based on averages, and as we know there’s huge individual differences for every average.

“So there are many 70 and 80-year-olds that are much fitter and healthier than those who are a lot younger. I think the problem is that if people don’t perceive the guidance to be proportionate to their own situation there will be problems with adherence, and we now know more about who is at risk and the whole progress of the disease.” 

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Prof Michie said “individual data” based on age, gender and underlying health conditions could help people find out how much additional risk they are exposed to should they contract the virus. 

“Communities and people do want to be involved in decision-making,” she said. “I think this is incredibly important going forward for this issue, but also for all issues, that communities are properly consulted, properly engaged, properly involved in decision-making about how we go forward in what’s going to be a very complicated terrain of [easing] restrictions.”

Last week, The Telegraph reported that ministers are looking to restart the economy using a “traffic light” system, with the over-70s “stuck on red for months” – potentially up to a year – until a mass-produced vaccine is available. 

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Prof Michie, whose research focuses on developing the science of behaviour change interventions and applying behavioural science to those interventions, said that, when the Government reviews its guidance, it should “take this on board and make sure people are given the information to make sensible decisions about their own lives”. 

She added: “One of the great things about the progress of medicine is that we have so many fit and active, young at heart 70 and 80-year-olds, and I think that that must be recognised. We have much more information now than we had when the guidance was originally given out, and I think it could become more reformed and nuanced now.”

Caroline Abrahams, the charity director at Age UK, said: “When it comes old age, there is definitely no one size that fits all. There are enormous differences in  the health of the older population. We all know fortunate individuals who seem as fit as many half their age, while others really struggle when many of their contemporaries continue to do well.  

“A long period of lockdown would have enormous practical implications for older people, including the rising numbers who want or need to keep working, and all who care for their grandchildren too. There are also the potentially devastating mental health consequences to take into account if older people are advised to stay apart from family and friends for many months – a recipe for misery and loneliness.

“Government decisions about the lockdown that impact on all older people above a certain age on a compulsory basis, regarding of their health status, are unlikely to be acceptable or, it seems, particularly helpful in helping the country to transition back to a more normal way of life. 

“Older people should be able to make up their own minds, armed with best information and the clearest evidence-based advice the Government is able to provide.”

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has been contacted for comment. 



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