Coroner confirms GPs do not need to verify deaths in person

The Essex Coroner's Service has dropped a demand for GPs to verify all deaths in the county in person during the coronavirus pandemic.

GPs can verify deaths remotely (Photo: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images)
GPs can verify deaths remotely (Photo: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images)

BMA lawyers wrote to the Essex chief coroner on 13 May to demand the withdrawal of a demand for in-person verification of deaths, warning it was 'contrary to English law' and could put doctors and patients at risk.

The BMA stepped in after the Essex chief coroner said in a letter to all GPs in the area on 29 April that: 'It is not acceptable under my jurisdiction, that the verification of death is carried out by video. Only a healthcare professional (doctor, paramedic or registered nurse) may verify the death and this must be in person. It is not acceptable for death to be verified by anyone else.'

Guidance published last month by NHS England on death verification during the pandemic makes clear that 'following an expected death, there is no requirement in English law for a GP or other registered medical practitioner to see or examine the body of a person'.

It adds that during the COVID-19 pandemic, 'GPs and other suitably trained healthcare professionals should have the option of supporting the death verification process including performing this role remotely'.

Death verification

The NHS England advice was followed by similar advice from the DHSC on 5 May.

An Essex County Council spokesperson confirmed the demand for in-person checks had been dropped. The spokesperson said: 'The guidance which the senior coroner issued on 29 April has been superseded by her letter dated 7 May which was sent out jointly with the East Anglian senior coroners. This latest letter has full regard for and accepts the DHSC published on 5 May.'

Medical Protection Society medical director Dr Rob Hendry welcomed the coroner's decision to back down: 'We welcome this decision and feel it is a pragmatic outcome. Coronial investigations are a central pillar of this country’s justice system, yet there are considerable variations between the practices and policies of regional coroner services across the country.

'The proposed policy in this case, which may have resulted in further risk to doctors and stress for bereaved families, highlights the need for greater consistency. When the COVID-19 crisis subsides, and there is time to reflect, we urge the government to give careful consideration to how this can be achieved.'

BMA GP committee deputy chair Dr Mark Sanford-Wood said the original demand for in-person checks was 'incredibly disappointing'.

He said: 'The law and all available guidance are clear on who can verify a death and that physical attendance by a GP is not necessary. To demand that GPs attend in person takes them away from frontline care – and crucially puts them at risk if the patient has died from COVID-19 related illness.'

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