Doctors will be in breach of the law from October if they withhold medical help to patients purely on the basis of their age, the home secretary Theresa May will announce on Tuesday in a tightening of Britain's age discrimination laws.

May and the care services minister, Paul Burstow, will announce that the blanket ban on discrimination in the health service will come into force in October.

There had been fears that the legislation, derived from Labour's Equality Act 2010, was being shelved after previous slippages in the timetable for a consultation on how age discrimination laws should apply to both public and private services.

A series of critical reports from official watchdogs in the past year have uncovered examples of elderly people suffering abuse and neglect at the hands of their nurses and carers.

There have been persistent claims that doctors discriminate against elderly patients in deciding how to distribute scarce NHS resources, for instance for cancer or care patients. Elderly patients have often claimed they have not been treated with sufficient respect.

Age discrimination is already outlawed in the workplace under the Equality Act, but ministers have been consulting for a year on how the law should apply to public and private services. They have been heavily lobbied for exemptions by private companies such as insurance firms that use age as a proxy for risk.

Ministers will promise "all people, regardless of age, will receive a personal, fair and diverse service, based on their individual needs, not their age".

Health staff will also have to show they considered the wellbeing and dignity of older people.

Faced by small-business fears that the legislation will bring a new, unnecessary burden, ministers will promise the vast majority of businesses and organisations will be able to continue to operate as usual.

Specific exemptions from the new law will be provided for a range of business, such as insurance companies, which will still be able to use age when assessing risk and deciding prices. Travel operators will be able to offer free bus travel for over-60s, and 18-30 holiday firms will also be able to target their age group.

In April the insurance industry signed a voluntary deal to make it easier for older people to get motor and travel insurance, as well as provide more information on why decisions are made.

Home Office officials said commissioners and providers of NHS andsocial care services should continue to make sensible, clinically justifiable decisions based on age, where this best meets people's needs. But the legislation is expected to have a practical impact on how resorurces are allocated, including in mental health services one of the areas highlighted a focus of age discrimination.

Examples of the type of harmful discrimination the ban aims to end include:

  • Making assumptions about whether an older patient should be referred for treatment based solely on their age, rather than on the individual need and fitness level.
  • Not referring people (such as those not of working age) for a particular treatment or intervention that is considered mainly, but not exclusively, for working age adults.
  • Not considering the wellbeing or dignity of older people.

Article from the Guardian