Coroner's demand for GPs to verify deaths in person 'against the law' says BMA

Doctors' leaders have threatened the Essex Coroner's Service with legal action, warning that demands for GPs to verify deaths in person during the COVID-19 pandemic are illegal and put them at risk.

BMA headquarters (Photo: Malcolm Case-Green)
BMA headquarters (Photo: Malcolm Case-Green)

A letter sent to GPs by the Essex chief coroner on 29 April said: '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.'

But BMA leaders have called for the demand to be withdrawn, threatening the coroner with legal action and warning that the stance could put doctors and patients at risk. The association's lawyers have written to the coroner to say that the demand for in-person verification is 'contrary to English law'.

The BMA has called on the coroner to clarify the legal basis for its demand and warned it would 'consider legal action in the form of a judicial review'.

Death verification

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'.

BMA GP committee chair Dr Mark Sanford-Wood called the demand for in-person checks '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 – and in practice, where suitable, it is often done over the telephone in conjunction with other health professionals, care home staff or funeral directors.

COVID-19 pandemic

'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.

'Such a direction also complicates and slows down the verification process – potentially increasing distress for patients’ families at what is already an incredibly difficult time.'

Joint BMA and RCGP advice also backs remote verification of deaths during the pandemic. The college has been named as an 'interested party' in the letter to the coroner.

Joint RCGP honorary secretary Dr Victoria Tzortziou-Brown said: 'During the COVID-19 pandemic the processes in relation to death registration and management across the UK have been changing to ensure the deceased are treated with the utmost respect, to help minimise delays and distress for bereaved families and to protect public health.

'In these extraordinary times, there is a need for various groups of workers to work differently and together as one system. This is why in collaboration with the BMA we have produced guidance for the verification of expected death with the remote assistance of other workers.'

The Essex Coroner's Service has been approached for comment.

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