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Who gets the ventilator? Important legal rights in a pandemic
  1. Kathleen Liddell,
  2. Jeffrey M Skopek,
  3. Stephanie Palmer,
  4. Stevie Martin,
  5. Jennifer Anderson,
  6. Andrew Sagar
  1. Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Kathleen Liddell, Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB3 9DZ, UK; k.liddell{at}

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COVID-19 is a highly contagious infection with no proven treatment. Approximately 2.5% of patients need mechanical ventilation while their body fights the infection.1 Once COVID-19 patients reach the point of critical illness where ventilation is necessary, they tend to deteriorate quickly. During the pandemic, patients with other conditions may also present at the hospital needing emergency ventilation. But ventilation of a COVID-19 patient can last for 2–3 weeks. Accordingly, if all ventilators are in use, there will not be time for patients to ‘queue up’ to wait for those who arrived earlier to recover. Those who need a ventilator will die if they do not receive access to one quickly.

Many nations now face the prospect that they failed to prepare appropriately for this foreseen risk of pandemic (another issue worthy of legal analysis) and that their populations will need far more ventilators than the health service can supply. For many weeks, the UK has been anticipating a surge of COVID-19 infections that could leave patients queuing in hospitals for ICU care. Luckily, social distancing has ‘flattened the curve’ and this problem might not arise. There is still a degree of risk, however, and other countries will not be so lucky.

At some point, during this pandemic or the next, all countries will need to answer hard questions about whether and when scarce ICU resources (such as ventilators, beds and staff) should be either withheld or withdrawn from certain groups of patients solely for the purpose of providing them to others. Attempts to answer these questions can be found in a wide range of ICU triage protocols and ethical guidance documents, many of which embrace the foundational principle of ‘save the most lives’. Unfortunately, this worthwhile goal has generated many suggestions that could violate the law.

This article identifies …

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  • Funding KL and JMS acknowledge the support by the Novo Nordisk Foundation for the scientifically independent Collaborative Research Program for Biomedical Innovation Law (grant NNF17SA0027784).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; internally peer reviewed.