Intended for healthcare professionals


Ethical road map through the covid-19 pandemic

BMJ 2020; 369 doi: (Published 21 May 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;369:m2033

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  1. Zoe Fritz, Wellcome fellow in society and ethics,
  2. Richard Huxtable, professor of medical ethics and law2,
  3. Jonathan Ives, reader in empirical bioethics2,
  4. Alexis Paton, lecturer in social epidemiology and the sociology of health3,
  5. Anne Marie Slowther, professor of clinical ethics4,
  6. Dominic Wilkinson, professor of medical ethics5
  1. 1University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
  2. 2University of Bristol Centre for Ethics in Medicine, Population Health Sciences, Bristol Medical School, Bristol, UK
  3. 3Aston University, Birmingham, UK
  4. 4University of Warwick, Warwick, UK
  5. 5University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
  1. Correspondence to: R Huxtable r.huxtable{at}

We must follow the ethics, not just the science

The covid-19 pandemic has created profound ethical challenges in health and social care, not only for current decisions about individuals but also for longer term and population level policy decisions. Already covid-19 has generated ethical questions about the prioritisation of treatment, protective equipment, and testing; the impact of covid-19 strategies on patients with other health conditions; the approaches taken to advance care planning and resuscitation decisions1; and the crisis in care homes.

Ethical questions continue to multiply as the pandemic progresses and new evidence emerges, including how best to distribute any new vaccines and treatments; how best to respond to evidence that disease severity and mortality are substantially greater in ethnic minority populations2; how to prioritise patients for care as medical services re-open; how to manage assessment of immunity and its implications; and how the health system should be configured to manage any future peaks in cases.

Science and values

The UK government repeatedly states that it is “following the science” by heeding the advice provided through the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). However, this implies that the science alone will tell us what to do. Not only does this rhetoric shift the responsibility for difficult decisions …

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