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British Society of Gerontology calls on Government to reject policy responses to COVID-19 based only on chronological age

The British Society of Gerontology (BSG) urges the Government to reject the formulation and implementation of policy based on the simple application of chronological age. Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and evidence of growing age divisions in society, BSG also calls on government and media organisations to be cautious in their use of language.


In a detailed statement on COVID-19, Professor Thomas Scharf, President of BSG, and members of the Society’s national executive committee argue that fostering generational and societal cohesion during the course of the pandemic is essential.


Professor Scharf of Newcastle University said: “Only by bringing the generations together in this time of crisis can we prevent lasting damage being done to relationships between young and old in Britain. I am proud that BSG is taking a firm stand against the ageist and stereotypical assumptions that characterise policy measures that rely solely on the application of chronological age.”


Professor Debora Price of the University of Manchester said: “We are witnessing terrible age divisions in Britain with growing hostility between the generations. We need to recognise that this is being caused and exacerbated by government policy and rhetoric, and that it is incredibly harmful to society for both young and old. The messaging needs to change as a matter of urgency.”


In its statement, BSG expresses its objection to any policy which differentiates the population by application of an arbitrary chronological age in restricting people’s rights and freedoms. While people at all ages can be vulnerable to COVID-19, and all can spread the disease, not all people over the age of 70 are vulnerable, nor all those under 70 resilient. Given older adults’ multiple social roles, quarantining the more than 8.5 million people over 70 years of age will deprive society of many people who are productive and active and who can be a key part of the solution by supporting the economy, families and communities.


Acknowledging the importance of measures to control and limit the spread of COVID-19, as well as the need for rapid testing for front-line workers leading the response to the pandemic, BSG also expresses its support for testing of the wider population regardless of age. This allows people to respond appropriately to the pandemic, ensuring that the right people isolate themselves at the right time.



About the British Society of Gerontology

The British Society of Gerontology is the learned society representing gerontologists in the United Kingdom. It provides a multidisciplinary forum for researchers and other individuals interested in the situations of older people, and in how knowledge about ageing and later life can be enhanced and improved.



Professor Thomas Scharf, President of the British Society of Gerontology and Professor of Social Gerontology, Newcastle University. Email:



Further information


The full BSG statement can be accessed here.


The BSG statement makes the following key points in relation to policy approaches to COVID-19:


  1. It is wrong and overly simplistic to regard people aged 70 and above as being vulnerable, a burden, or presenting risks to other people. Many people in this age group are fit, well, and playing an active role in society. Older people participate in paid work, run businesses, volunteer, are active in civil society and the cultural life of communities, and take care of family members including parents, spouses/partners, adult children (especially those living with disabilities), and grandchildren.
  2. Serious health risks particularly identified for coronavirus are prevalent across the population. High risks exist across age groups and many older people have no underlying health conditions.
  3. Policies based on arbitrary age thresholds, such as 70, pose dangers for people below and above the threshold. Messaging about how to avoid catching and spreading coronavirus should apply to everyone irrespective of age.
  4. Age-based messaging risks pitting young against old. It may make older people feel resistant to what they are being told, which they do not see as applying to their situation. It may lead younger people to engage in discriminatory behaviours towards older people and to take risks with their own health.
  5. There is a need for clear guidance on what people can do to maintain and improve their physical and mental health while keeping physically apart from others. This will only be effective if the message from Government is not divisive around age.
  6. The COVID-19 crisis has prompted considerable discussion of loneliness and social isolation amongst older people. This is contrary to evidence which shows that loneliness and isolation affects people of all ages. The crisis provides an opportunity to bring people and generations together, especially by helping to bridge digital divides across society.
  7. Living alone has not been adequately considered or addressed. While this is an issue that disproportionately affects people aged 75 and over, it affects all age groups and generations. There is an urgent need for clear policies aimed at supporting people of all ages who live alone.
  8. As well as health and social care workers, family and friends who will need to provide care to people who become unwell form the front line of society’s response to the pandemic and will need to be acknowledged and treated as such.
  9. Special thought should be given to how people might connect with loved ones who live in care settings. Denying people the chance to see friends and relatives where the physical and mental wellbeing of both depends on that contact, represents a drastic curtailment of human rights and needs.
  10. Common sense is needed about self-isolation. Socially isolating in a large house with a good internet connection and a steady income is completely different to socially isolating in a tiny flat, with no internet and under financial stress. Online food and other deliveries are not an option for many people, do not apply at all in rural areas, and are already difficult to obtain as companies struggle to meet demand. Exercise, personal mobility and human contact are key to healthy ageing and need to be promoted long beyond the current pandemic.
  11. A key message from research on social aspects of ageing is that policy and practice should be attuned to the diversity of older people. The older population differs substantially according to such characteristics as age, gender, ethnicity/race, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic status, marital status, household composition, place of residence and care roles. Research on ageing has made considerable progress in recent years in drawing attention to the heterogeneity of older people. It would be a highly retrograde step if this progress was undone by policy measures that reinforce the view that all people over a certain age share a particular set of characteristics.
  12. As well as preparing policies for living through this pandemic, we need to think about death, and the potential for death rates not witnessed for generations in the UK.We need sensible, realistic and emotionally supportive frameworks for attending funerals, and for coping with individual and collective grief. Such frameworks are needed regardless of the age of people coming to terms with loss.
  13. It is important that society declares its strong support and admiration for clinicians who are making hard decisions, including, in due course, potentially about rationing life-saving resources. However, clinical decisions for access to testing and treatment should be made on the basis of clinical need. Using age alone as a criterion for clinical decision making is fundamentally wrong.



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