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Emergency legislation is needed to protect doctors and nurses from “inappropriate” legal action over critical Covid treatment decisions made amid the pressures of the pandemic, health organisations have argued.
A coalition of health bodies has written to Matt Hancock, the health secretary, calling for the law to be updated so medical workers do not feel “vulnerable to the risk of prosecution for unlawful killing” when treating coronavirus patients “in circumstances beyond their control”.
The letter, coordinated by the Medical Protection Society (MPS), states there are no legal safeguards for coronavirus-related issues such as when there are “surges in demand for resources that temporarily exceed supply”.
The coalition, which includes the British Medical Association and Doctors’ Association UK, wrote: “With the chief medical officers now determining that there is a material risk of the NHS being overwhelmed within weeks, our members are worried that not only do they face being put in this position but also that they could subsequently be vulnerable to a criminal investigation by the police.
“There is no national guidance, backed up by a clear statement of law, on when life-sustaining treatment can be lawfully withheld or withdrawn from a patient in order for it to benefit a different patient, and if so under what conditions. The first concern of a doctor is their patients and providing the highest standard of care at all times.”
The health groups said no medical professional should be “above the law” and that emergency legislation should only apply to decisions “made in good faith” and “in circumstances beyond their control and in compliance with relevant guidance”.
The letter goes on to highlight warnings made by Boris Johnson in November that if the NHS is overwhelmed then “doctors and nurses could be forced to choose which patients to treat, who would live and who would die”.
During the same month, the UK’s chief medical officers, the NHS, the General Medical Council and medical royal colleges wrote to doctors urging flexibility in a second wave, which could require them to work outside their usual practice.
The letter said regulators such as the GMC would take into account the environment doctors are working in, while “due consideration” would be given to “difficult circumstances”.
Despite such reassurances, a survey of about 2,420 MPS members in January found that 61% were concerned about facing investigation as a result of a clinical decision made in a high-pressure environment.
It also revealed that about 36% were concerned about being investigated following a decision to “withdraw or withhold life prolonging treatment due to capacity and resource constraints during the pandemic”.
The demand for greater legal protections from doctors and nurses comes amid growing concern that hospitals will soon be overwhelmed and that the crisis may not peak for several weeks.
On Saturday, the government confirmed a further 1,295 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19, bringing the official UK total to 88,590.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We have reassured NHS staff that existing indemnity arrangements will rightly continue to cover the vast majority of liabilities which may arise, and we have made specific arrangements so any member of staff not covered by existing indemnity schemes will be protected under the Coronavirus Act.
“Health and care professional regulators have issued a joint statement making clear any concerns raised will be considered in the context of the challenging circumstances staff are operating in.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Doctors and nurses ‘need more legal protection amid pandemic pressures’ | Society