© 2018 British Journal of Anaesthesia Background: Patient selection for critical care admission must balance patient safety with optimal resource allocation. This study aimed to determine the relationship between critical care admission, and postoperative mortality after abdominal surgery. Methods: This prespecified secondary analysis of a multicentre, prospective, observational study included consecutive patients enrolled in the DISCOVER study from UK and Republic of Ireland undergoing major gastrointestinal and liver surgery between October and December 2014. The primary outcome was 30-day mortality. Multivariate logistic regression was used to explore associations between critical care admission (planned and unplanned) and mortality, and inter-centre variation in critical care admission after emergency laparotomy. Results: Of 4529 patients included, 37.8% (n=1713) underwent planned critical care admissions from theatre. Some 3.1% (n=86/2816) admitted to ward-level care subsequently underwent unplanned critical care admission. Overall 30-day mortality was 2.9% (n=133/4519), and the risk-adjusted association between 30-day mortality and critical care admission was higher in unplanned [odds ratio (OR): 8.65, 95% confidence interval (CI): 3.51–19.97) than planned admissions (OR: 2.32, 95% CI: 1.43–3.85). Some 26.7% of patients (n=1210/4529) underwent emergency laparotomies. After adjustment, 49.3% (95% CI: 46.8–51.9%, P<0.001) were predicted to have planned critical care admissions, with 7% (n=10/145) of centres outside the 95% CI. Conclusions: After risk adjustment, no 30-day survival benefit was identified for either planned or unplanned postoperative admissions to critical care within this cohort. This likely represents appropriate admission of the highest-risk patients. Planned admissions in selected, intermediate-risk patients may present a strategy to mitigate the risk of unplanned admission. Substantial inter-centre variation exists in planned critical care admissions after emergency laparotomies.