Long wait for COVID-19 public inquiry 'could drive doctors to quit NHS'

Doctors' leaders have criticised government plans to delay a public inquiry into the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic until April 2022 - with medico-legal experts warning it could hit doctors’ morale and drive up early retirements.

Prime minister Boris Johnson: announced public inquiry (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Prime minister Boris Johnson: announced public inquiry (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul has said that bereaved families and frontline staff should not have to wait almost a year before an inquiry is launched - insisting that work must ‘start much earlier’.

He added that the government’s investigation must be ‘thorough, with no stone unturned’ to ensure that failures around inadequate PPE supplies and a lack of proper risk assessment are not repeated.

The Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland (MMDUS) also called for the public inquiry to be fast-tracked - warning that a long wait could push doctors to quit the NHS.

GP numbers

It comes as the BMA polling revealed earlier this month that more than a third of UK GPs plan to retire early and many more to reduce their working hours in the coming year due to unmanageable workload exacerbated by the pandemic.

The NHS Confederation also called for a ‘clear timetable’ around the inquiry, but insisted that there were ‘plenty of lessons’ for the UK governments to address actively in the interim.

Prime minister Boris Johnson announced on 12 May that he would launch a full independent inquiry into the government’s handling of COVID-19 from spring 2022. He explained that the delay had been manufactured to avoid any risk it could ‘divert or distract’ NHS staff.

However, the prime minister has faced heavy criticism over the delay - with calls for it to be brought forward and for more detail around how the investigation will unfold.

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Dr Nagpaul said: ‘While it would not be right to distract healthcare staff from their hugely important day-to-day work, the government [must not] use that as an excuse to not get this inquiry underway as soon as is effectively possible.

‘Almost 128,000 people have lost their lives to the virus… scores of health and social care workers have put their lives at risk every single day, with hundreds who died from the virus.

‘This inquiry needs to be thorough, with no stone unturned. It must also be about lessons being learned so the mistakes made cannot be repeated and the country is better prepared for future pandemics. This inquiry must involve all those who need answers and it needs to start much earlier than the spring of next year.’

MDDUS CEO Chris Kenny argued that doctors needed peace of mind that they would be treated fairly, in the case of a complaint or regulatory process around care delivered during the pandemic. He said: ‘We know this is a genuine and very live concern for doctors. They need reassurance that the collective memory of working during the pandemic and its timeline will be preserved.

NHS doctors

‘Despite new guidance issued by health professional regulators, or by employers, none of this has given health professionals the reassurance that the COVID-19 specific conditions they worked under will always be taken into account in the case of complaints or claims.

‘We remain strongly of the opinion that a separate, expert and independent report is rapidly required to consider the complexities of the pandemic on the regulatory and legal processes.’

NHS Confederation chief executive Danny Mortimer, said: ‘Health leaders agree there should be a public inquiry into the UK governments’ handling of the COVID-19 crisis, with a clear timetable and process that this will follow, so that they understand how they can contribute to it.

‘While the statement said that the inquiry will commence in spring 2022, there are plenty of lessons for the UK governments to address actively in the interim.’

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