Elderly patients are to receive legal protection against being denied medical treatment simply because of their advanced years, ministers will announce today.
A ban against age discrimination in public services, such as health and social care, is to come into force in October. It will outlaw doctors, care home staff and hospital managers from deciding on levels of care on any grounds other than medical need.
Patients or relatives who believe they have been discriminated against because of their age or are being regarded as a lower priority than younger people with the same condition will able to sue health managers.
Nurses and carers will also face a legal obligation to treat older people with respect and dignity.
The moves follow years of reports of treatment being rationed by age – for instance with younger patients placed nearer the front of the queue for heart surgery – and accounts of elderly patients receiving sub-standard care.
Age discrimination in the workplace is already illegal and ministers have been deliberating for more than a year on whether the ban should be extended to the provision of services. As the timetable slipped, fears grew among campaigners for the elderly that the Government might be having second thoughts.
Ministers have dropped plans to outlaw companies and banks from charging older customers higher prices for products such as travel insurance, but are to implement the bulk of their initial proposals.
Doctors and hospital chiefs are formally advised only to allocate treatment on the basis of medical need and not age.
But studies suggest they are not always abiding by the instruction. Three years ago a think-tank concluded that older people had "differential access to services" – they were less likely than younger people to be referred to intensive care after a serious accident and waited longer in casualty departments. It also found they were not receiving equivalent treatment for conditions such as strokes and heart disease.
Paul Burstow, the Care Minister, will say today: "We know that older people are not always treated with the dignity and respect they deserve because of ageist attitudes – this will not be tolerated. Our population is ageing as more of us live longer. The challenge for the NHS is to look beyond a person's date of birth and meet the needs of older people as individuals."
Michelle Mitchell, of Age UK, said: "Discrimination based on your date of birth is as indefensible in 21st-century Britain as prejudice on the basis of race, gender, disability or sexual orientation.
"We hope the new law which will apply to the NHS, social care and other services will prevent older people being denied proper treatment because of their age. It sends a clear message to service providers that discrimination law will in future also protect older people."