Decision Making

Mandating COVID-19 Vaccination for Children

Written by Lisa Forsberg and Anthony Skelton

In many countries vaccine rollouts are now well underway. Vaccine programmes in Israel, the United Kingdom, Chile, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and the United States have been particularly successful. Mass vaccination is vital to ending the pandemic. However, at present, vaccines are typically not approved for children under the age of 16. Full protection from COVID-19 at a population level will not be achieved until most children and adolescents are inoculated against the deadly disease. A number of pharmaceutical companies have started or will soon start clinical trials to test the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccinations in children and adolescents. Initial results of clinical trials seem promising (see also here and here).

There are strong reasons to inoculate children. COVID-19 may harm or kill them. It disproportionately affects already disadvantaged populations. For example, a CDC study published in August 2020 found the hospitalisation rate to be five times higher for Black children and eight times higher for Latino children than it is for white children. In addition, inoculating children is necessary for establishing herd immunity and (perhaps more importantly), as Jeremy Samuel Faust and Angela L. Rasmussen explained in the New York Times, preventing the virus from spreading and mutating ‘into more dangerous variants, including ones that could harm both children and adults’. Continue reading

Press Release: New Tavistock Legal Ruling on Puberty Blockers

The legal decision this morning, in the Family division of the High Court, provides important clarification. It is likely to be a relief to young people with gender dysphoria and their families.
In December, the High Court found that young people under 16 with gender dysphoria were highly unlikely to be able to understand the complexities and uncertainties of puberty blocking treatment. That meant that they could not consent (on their own) to treatment. The court recommended that doctors and families go to court to seek permission to start treatment.
That decision has caused great uncertainty for a large number of vulnerable teenagers with gender dysphoria who had previously been started on treatment or were awaiting treatment. It wasn’t clear whether they would be able to receive puberty blockers.
The decision today clarifies that parents of young people with gender dysphoria can consent to puberty blocking treatment on behalf of the young person. Where the parents, doctors and young person are all in agreement about this, there is no need to go to court.
 
This court decision reinforces a long established ethical approach to medical treatment in children and young people. The views of the child or young person should be sought. If the young person is sufficiently mature they may be able to consent on their own to the treatment in some cases. But where that isn’t the case, parents are able to consent to treatment that would be in the young person’s best interests (ie would be best overall for them). That ethical approach has long been adopted, in this country and others, for young people needing surgery or chemotherapy or other medical treatment. It applies to extremely important life and death decisions (for example about stopping life support). It also applies to puberty blockers.
Debate about the role of puberty blockers in young people and children is likely to continue. But this decision means that where doctors believe that it would be best for the young person to have this treatment, the young person wants the treatment and parents consent, the treatment can legally be provided.”
Professor Dominic Wilkinson
Professor of Medical Ethics, University of Oxford
Consultant Neonatologist

No conflicts of interest

Ethics Doesn’t Rule, OK?

By Charles Foster

Ethics and law are different. Or they should be.

Law has the power to coerce. That is a frightening power. There should be as little law as possible. But there should be more ethics than there is.

The boundary between the two domains is not absolute. Clinicians are probably more frightened of being struck off by the General Medical Council (GMC) (after an adjudication on their ethics by the Medical Practitioners’ Tribunal Service) than they are about an order by a civil court that compels their insurers to pay damages for clinical negligence. The exercise of the GMC’s statutory powers can be draconian: the existence of those powers, and the associated sanctions, is certainly coercive.

But although the boundary is sometimes blurred, it is still real. It is the job of the law to keep it from becoming dangerously permeable. In a recent case the law was caught napping. Continue reading

Priority Vaccination for Prison and Homeless Populations

Written by Ben Davies

Last week brought the news that an additional 1.7m people in the UK had been asked to take additional ‘shielding’ measures against COVID-19, following new modelling which considered previously ignored factors such as ethnicity, weight and deprivation. Since many of this group have not yet been vaccinated, they were bumped up the priority list for vaccine access, moving into group 4 of the government’s vaccine plan.

Two other groups, however, have not yet been incorporated into this plan despite appeals from some quarters that they should be. First, new figures reinforced the sense that the virus is disproportionately affecting prisoners, with one in eight of the prison population having had COVID-19, compared with roughly one in twenty in the wider population (in the United States, the prison figure has been estimated to be one in five).

Second, some GP groups and local councils have offered priority vaccination to homeless residents, despite their not officially qualifying for prioritisation on the government’s plan. There have also been calls for the government to incorporate this into national plans, rather than being left to more local decision-making.

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Lessons for Philosophers and Scientists from Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown

By Charles Foster

Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate has issued proceedings, complaining that Enola Holmes,  a recently released film about Sherlock Holmes’ sister, portrays the great detective as too emotional.

Sherlock Holmes was famously suspicious of emotions. 1 ‘ [L]ove is an emotional thing’, he icily observed, ‘and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things. ‘2  “I am a brain’, he told Watson. ‘The rest of me is a mere appendix’.3

I can imagine that many professional scientists and philosophers would feel affronted if they were accused of being emotional animals. Holmes is a model for them. He’s rigorous, empirical, and relies on induction.

But here’s the thing. He’s not actually very good. Mere brains might be good at anticipating the behaviour of mere brains, but they’re not good for much else. In particular Holmes is not a patch on his rival, Chesterton’s Father Brown, a Roman Catholic priest. Gramsci writes that Brown ‘totally defeats Sherlock Holmes, makes him look like a pretentious little boy, shows up his narrowness and pettiness.’ 4 Brown is faster, more efficient, and, for the criminal, deadlier. This is because, not despite, his use of his emotions. Continue reading

Consent Without Alternatives

Written by Ben Davies and Joshua Parker

“COVID-19: Do not resuscitate orders might have been put in place without consent, watchdog says”. This recent headline followed an investigation by the Care Quality Commission into Do Not Attempt Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation (DNACPR) decisions early in the pandemic. In a recent post, Dominic Wilkinson highlights two misconceptions in the coverage of this report, one of which is the ‘consent misconception’.

Dominic’s view is that “there is no ethical requirement…to seek the agreement of patients not to offer or provide a treatment” which a medical professional judges inappropriate. Of course, his position is not that consultation and discussion around CPR is inappropriate, only that consent is not necessary. This is the standard view on consent in this context and, due in part to the Tracey judgment, reflects doctors’ practice. Thus, an important distinction emerges between consenting to the withholding of some treatment, and discussion of that decision. Doctors may be ethically required to discuss a decision without also having an obligation to seek the patient’s consent. The absence of consent, then, does not signal that the DNACPR was unethical, whereas a failure to consult probably will.

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The Duty To Ignore Covid-19

By Charles Foster

This is a plea for a self-denying ordinance on the part of philosophers. Ignore Covid-19. It was important that you said what you have said about it, but the job is done. There is nothing more to say. And there are great dangers in continuing to comment. It gives the impression that there is only one issue in the world. But there are many others, and they need your attention. Just as cancer patients were left untreated because Covid closed hospitals, so important philosophical problems are left unaddressed, or viewed only through the distorting lens of Covid. Continue reading

We’re All Vitalists Now

By Charles Foster

It has been a terrible few months for moral philosophers – and for utilitarians in particular. Their relevance to public discourse has never been greater, but never have their analyses been so humiliatingly sidelined by policy makers across the world. The world’s governments are all, it seems, ruled by a rather crude vitalism. Livelihoods and freedoms give way easily to a statistically small risk of individual death.

That might or might not be the morally right result. I’m not considering here the appropriateness of any government measures, and simply note that whatever one says about the UK Government’s response, it has been supremely successful in generating fear. Presumably that was its intention. The fear in the eyes above the masks is mainly an atavistic terror of personal extinction – a fear unmitigated by rational risk assessment. There is also a genuine fear for others (and the crisis has shown humans at their most splendidly altruistic and communitarian as well). But we really don’t have much ballast.

The fear is likely to endure long after the virus itself has receded. Even if we eventually pluck up the courage to hug our friends or go to the theatre, the fear has shown us what we’re really like, and the unflattering picture will be hard to forget.

I wonder what this new view of ourselves will mean for some of the big debates in ethics and law? The obvious examples are euthanasia and assisted suicide. Continue reading

Maximising Ventilators: Some Ethical Complications

Written by Joshua Parker and Ben Davies

One of the impending tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic is a grave mismatch between the supply of ventilators and the numbers needing them. This situation, as seen in Italy, is predicted to be mirrored here in the UK. Coronavirus can cause acute respiratory distress syndrome for which the management is mechanical ventilation on the ICU. This represents these patients’ only chance at survival. Part of the response to the incoming tsunami of patients requiring ventilation is to produce more ventilators. This is a reasonable way to try to lessen the mismatch between supply and demand. However, producing more ventilators cannot be the solution in isolation. As a complex piece of medical equipment, ventilators need trained staff to operate them and provide the additional care ventilated patients require. There has been a significant push to attempt to ensure enough ventilator trained staff as possible. Both staff and ventilator shortages present significant issues; yet it is shortages of ventilators that account for the bulk of ethical discussion so far. It is therefore worth exploring some of the ethical problems that might arise should there be plenty of ventilators, but not enough staff.

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The Perfect Protocol? Ethics Guidelines in a Pandemic

Written by Joshua Parker and Ben Davies

One question occupying politicians and healthcare workers in the middle of this global pandemic is whether there will be enough ventilators when COVID-19 reaches its peak. As cases in the UK continue to increase, so too will demand for ventilators; Italy has reported overwhelming demand for the equipment and the need to ration access, and the UK will likely face similar dilemmas. Indeed, one UK consultant has predicted a scenario of having 8 patients for every one ventilator. Aside from anything else, this would be truly awful for the healthcare professionals having to make such decisions and live with the consequences.

Ethics is an inescapable part of medical practice, and healthcare professionals face numerous ethical decisions throughout their careers. But ethics is challenging, often involving great uncertainty and ambiguity. Medics often lack the time to sort through the morass that is ethics.  Many therefore prefer heuristics, toolboxes and a handful of principles to simplify, speed up and streamline their ethics.

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