Dominic Wilkinson’s Posts

DNACPR Orders in a Pandemic: Misgivings and Misconceptions.

by Dominic Wilkinson @Neonatalethics

This week, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) published an interim report into resuscitation decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a number of media outlets, the report found that in the first wave of the crisis inappropriate and possibly unlawful ‘do not resuscitate’ orders were used “without the consent of patients and families” (see eg Telegraph, Sky).

There are real concerns and important questions to answer about policies and care for patients in care homes and in the community during the pandemic. However, the media stories, and the CQC report itself appear to illustrate two ethical misconceptions.


Continue reading

Refusal Redux. Revisiting Debate About Adolescent Refusal of Treatment.

by Prof Dominic Wilkinson @Neonatalethics

Last month, in an emergency hearing, the High court in London heard a case that characterises a familiar problem in medical ethics. A 15 year old adolescent (known as ‘X’) with a long-standing medical condition, Sickle Cell disease, had a very low blood count and required an urgent blood transfusion. However, X is a Jehovah’s Witness and did not wish to receive blood as it was contrary to her religious beliefs. X’s doctors believed that she was at risk of very serious health consequences without a blood transfusion (a stroke, or even death).

Of no great surprise to anyone, the court authorised the emergency blood transfusion for X. Although X was “mature and wise beyond her years”, and judged to be ‘Gillick competent’ (see below), the judge made the decision in her best interests.

That decision is consistent with many previous cases that have come to the courts in the UK and overseas (see here, here, here )[1]. It is very similar to the case in Ian McEwan’s novel and film “The Children Act” (the book, had been based on real cases before the courts). The courts, in the UK at least, have always decided to over-rule under-eighteens who wish to refuse potentially life-saving treatment. Once the teenager reaches the age of eighteen, the decision is different, however. At that point, if they are judged to have “capacity”, (ie they have the ability to use, understand, and communicate the information necessary for a decision)  they can refuse even if the treatment would certainly save their life.

Although the decision is unsurprising, the judge made a comment implying that future cases might not always reach the same conclusion. X’s lawyer argued that the traditional legal approach may be “in need of urgent re-analysis and review”, and the judge appeared to agree that these arguments needed careful consideration (not possible acutely given the urgency of X’s case).

Should the ethical and legal approach to adolescents who refuse treatment change?

Continue reading

Cross Post: Pandemic Ethics: Vaccine Distribution Ethics: Monotheism or Polytheism?

Written by Alberto Giubilini, Julian Savulescu, Dominic Wilkinson

(Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics)

(Cross-posted with the Journal of Medical Ethics blog)

Pfizer has reported preliminary results that their mRNA COVID vaccine is 90% effective during phase III trials. The hope is to have the first doses available for distribution by the end of the year. Discussion has quickly moved to how the vaccine should be distributed in the first months, given very limited initial availability. This is, in large part, an ethical question and one in which ethical issues and values are either hidden or presented as medical decisions. The language adopted in this discussion often assumes and takes for granted ethical values that would need to be made explicit and interrogated. For example, the UK Government’s JCVI report for priority groups for COVID-19 vaccination reads: “Mathematical modelling indicates that as long as an available vaccine is both safe and effective in older adults, they should be a high priority for vaccination”. This is ethical language disguised as scientific. Whether older adults ‘should’ be high priority depends on what we want to achieve through a vaccination policy. And that involves value choices. Distribution of COVID-19 vaccines will need to maximize the public health benefits of the limited availability, or reduce the burden on the NHS, or save as many lives as possible from COVID-19. These are not necessarily the same thing and a choice among them is an ethical choice. Continue reading

Press Release: UK Approves COVID-19 Challenge Studies

Responses to the UK COVID-19 Challenge Studies: 

“In a pandemic, time is lives.  So far, over a million people have died.

“There is a moral imperative to develop to a safe and effective vaccine – and to do so as quickly as possible.  Challenge studies are one way of accelerating vaccine research.  They are ethical if the risks are fully disclosed and they are reasonable.  The chance of someone aged 20-30 dying of COVID-19 is about the same as the annual risk of dying in a car accident.  That is a reasonable risk to take, especially to save hundreds of thousands of lives.  It is surprising challenge studies were not done sooner.  Given the stakes, it is unethical not to do challenge studies.”

Prof Julian Savulescu, Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics, and Director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, and Co-Director of the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities, University of Oxford

“Human challenge studies are an important and powerful research tool to help accelerate our understanding of infectious diseases and vaccine development.  They have been used for many years for a range of different infections.

“The announcement of the UK Human Challenge Program is a vital step forward for the UK and the world in our shared objective of bringing the COVID-19 pandemic to an end.  With cases climbing across Europe, and more than 1.2 million deaths worldwide, there is an urgent ethical imperative to explore and establish COVID-19 challenge trials.

“All research needs ethical safeguards.  Challenge trials need to be carefully designed to ensure that those who take part are fully informed of the risks, and that the risks to volunteers are minimised.  Not everyone could take part in a challenge trial (only young, healthy volunteers are likely to be able to take part).  Not everyone would choose to take part.  But there are hundreds of young people in the UK and elsewhere who have already signed up to take part in COVID challenge studies.  They deserve our admiration, our support and our thanks.”

Prof Dominic Wilkinson, Professor of Medical Ethics, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford

Further Research

Read more about the ethics of challenge studies:

Continue reading

Coronavirus: Why I Support the World’s First COVID Vaccine Challenge Trial


Dominic Wilkinson, University of Oxford

Two months ago I received an email from a colleague inviting me to join a global campaign to support a form of vaccine research that would involve deliberately infecting volunteers with COVID-19. This might seem like a strange idea. Some people have raised concerns about this research. Some even think that it would violate the Hippocratic oath for a doctor to expose research participants to harm in this way.

But as a medical doctor, an ethicist and a researcher, I strongly support COVID-19 challenge trials. I replied immediately and have joined over 150 academics on an open letter advocating preparation for these trials. This week, there are reports that the first of these trials will start in London in 2021. Special research facilities are being developed, and several thousand young people in the UK have already volunteered to be part of such a trial. Continue reading

Must Clinical Ethics Committees Involve Patients or Families in their Meetings?

By Dominic Wilkinson @Neonatalethics and Michael Dunn @ethical_mikey

In a high court case reported last week, a judge strongly criticised a London hospital’s clinical ethics committee (CEC). The case related to disputed treatment for a gravely ill nine-year old child. There had been a breakdown in the relationship between the clinical team and the child’s parents. Prior to going to court, the clinicians had referred the case to the CEC. The committee had heard evidence from the medical professionals involved, and apparently reached consensus that further invasive life prolonging treatments were not in the child’s best interests. However, the committee had not involved the parents in the meeting. The judge found this omission striking and regrettable. She noted

“a lack of involvement by patients and/or their families is itself an issue of medical ethics and I am most surprised that there is not guidance in place to ensure their involvement and/or participation. … the absence of any prior consultation or participation, cannot be good practice and should generally be unacceptable.”
Continue reading

Pandemic Ethics: Extreme Altruism in a Pandemic

Written by Julian Savulescu and Dominic Wilkinson

Cross-posted with the Journal of Medical Ethics blog

Altruism is one person sacrificing or risking his or her own interests for another’s interests. Humans, like other animals, have a tendency towards altruism. This is usually directed to members of their own group. An example is donating a kidney to a family member. This is quite risky – it involves immediate risk of death from anaesthesia or post-operative complications, and long term risk of kidney failure.

But sometimes people are altruistic towards strangers.

Altruism often involves fairly small personal sacrifices. (For example, most people donate to charity, but in countries like the UK, it is typically only a tiny proportion of their income) Where someone can cause great benefit to another person at little or no personal cost, there is an ethical obligation for them to do so. This is the Duty of Easy Rescue. A whole movement has arisen called Effective Altruism which aims to ensure that altruistic acts do as much good as possible.

Altruism can also be extreme. Some people give up their entire livelihood to work overseas for aid agencies or charities. During a pandemic, health workers may take on significant personal risk to provide front-line medical care. In times of war, people may choose to literally give their life for others of their nation.

We can define extreme altruism as an act taken for the benefit of another that involves making large life-altering or life-threatening sacrifices or personal risks.

Society’s approach to extreme altruism is inconsistent. At times of obvious societal need, it encourages it (for example, clapping on the doorstep for ‘key workers’ is in order to offer our appreciation for their altruistic assumption of great risk) or even requires it by conscription of military personnel. At times of perceived lesser need, it is discouraged or even banned. For example, in normal times people are only allowed to take part in research, even if they do so with full knowledge and for no payment, if the risk of the research is minimal, and not if the risks are similar to everyday life. In some jurisdictions, altruistic kidney donations to strangers are banned.

It is not clear why extreme altruism should be limited to national emergency. If someone is competent, knows all the relevant facts, and is thinking clearly and choosing autonomously, they should be able to sacrifice their interests or even life for others. If someone is permitted to participate in highly risky personal activities for purely personal benefit (e.g. climbing Mount Everest, base jumping, or boxing) they ought to be permitted to at least take equivalent risks for the benefit of someone else (e.g. participating in research). Just as a rational, clear thinking person who is competent should be able to sacrifice their own life through suicide for any reason, they should be able to do this for the benefit of others.

We have argued at various points for extreme altruism in medicine. In one sense, there is a constant national emergency: we are all aging and slowly dying. There is a war against aging and death: we are fighting it with medicine. And people should be able sacrifice their interests or lives in this war. 

Extreme altruism extended to COVID-19

Continue reading

Pandemic Ethics: Key Workers Have a Stronger Claim to Compensation and Hazard Pay for Working During The COVID-19 Pandemic Than The Armed Forces Do When on Deployment

By Doug McConnell and Dominic Wilkinson

Post originally appeared on the Journal of Medical Ethics Blog


While the general public enjoy the relative safety of social distancing, key workers are at a higher risk of both contracting COVID-19 and transmitting it to their families. This is especially the case for ‘frontline’ workers who are frequently exposed to the virus and may not have access to adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). Tragically, many key workers have died of COVID-19 around the world already, including over 100 in the UK.

Although it is relatively rare for key workers to die from COVID-19, the risk of death is obviously much greater than one would usually expect in these roles and key workers clearly have good reason to be anxious. For ‘frontline’ workers, the distress is compounded by working in harrowing conditions where so many are dying alone. Furthermore, frontline workers have to take on the burdens of ensuring they do not transmit infections to their families, by moving in with patients, living in hotels, or maintaining rigorous social distancing in their own homes.

These atypical costs, risks, and burdens suggest that key workers are owed compensation in addition to their usual pay and a few instances of nationally coordinated applause. Continue reading

National Ethics Framework For Use in Acute Paediatric Settings During COVID-19 Pandemic

This ethical framework is a modification of guidance developed for treatment decisions relating to adults. The principles relating to decisions for children in the setting of the pandemic are the same as those for adults. The framework emphasises that decisions should be ethically consistent and apply to patients both with COVID-related and non-COVID related illness.
The focus of the ethical framework provides guidance for a situation where there is extremely high demand and limited critical care capacity. However, it is important to note that at the time of writing (14 April 2020) there is enough paediatric critical care capacity across the UK. At the present time decisions about children in need of critical care should reflect the same fundamental ethical considerations as apply in normal times. Those decisions should be focused on the best interests of the child, and actively involve parents in decision-making.
The framework is available to read in full on the  Royal College of Paediatric and Child Health website.

Cross Post: Boris Johnson Will Be Receiving The Same Special Treatment Other Patients Do In NHS Intensive Care

Written by Dominic Wilkinson, University of Oxford

This article originally appeared in The Conversation

In a world where the adjective “unprecedented” has become commonplace, the news of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson being admitted to the intensive care unit of St Thomas’ Hospital with COVID-19 seemed to take it to a new level.

There is little information in the public domain about Johnson’s medical condition, but this is clearly a very serious step. He will only have been transferred to intensive care because it is perceived that his condition is potentially life threatening and there is a possibility that he would need urgent medical attention, including the possible use of mechanical ventilation.

What would happen if that became necessary? Would Johnson’s treatment be any different from anyone else with the same condition? Would he receive special treatment because of his political position, because of his importance for the country? Would he be prioritised for a ventilator? Continue reading