MPs call for expert guidance on medico-legal implications of pandemic

A group of MPs has called on the government to set up an independent expert committee to provide guidance on how medico-legal issues should be dealt with as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

SNP health spokesperson Dr Philippa Whitford (Photo: UK Parliament)
SNP health spokesperson Dr Philippa Whitford (Photo: UK Parliament)

The MPs, led by former surgeon Dr Philippa Whitford, the SNP's health spokesperson, have written to health secretary Matt Hancock and justice secretary Robert Buckland, backing a campaign by the MDDUS to ensure the judiciary, regulators and NHS Employers have clear guidance on how to handle any complaints against doctors that arise during the pandemic.

The letter expresses concerns that doctors may not be treated fairly if processes do not adapt to reflect the exceptional circumstances in which they have been expected to work during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The MPs are calling for an independent advisory group to provide guidance on the claims, complaints and regulatory issues likely to be raised by the COVID-19 outbreak, advice on how these can be tackled fairly and details of what changes to normal processes may be necessary to minimise the stress and uncertainty on clinicians of investigations into decisions made during the pandemic.

Aftermath of pandemic

The MPs said that it was 'imperative that politicians, medical bodies and regulators act now to prepare for the aftermath of the pandemic' and 'ensure doctors have peace of mind that they will be treated fairly'.

Dr Whitford said: 'At the moment everyone is aware of the stress and challenge faced by NHS staff, but that memory will fade. It is important that the exceptional circumstances of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic are not forgotten when using hindsight to judge medical decisions or actions.

'An advisory committee could lay out specific guidance to achieve a fair balance between protecting patients’ rights and taking into account the situation in which doctors were having to work. While the advanced planning for a pandemic was rather limited, we owe it to all our frontline clinicians – especially those who have had to make difficult decisions about patient treatment – to plan well for its aftermath.'

Chris Kenny, CEO of the MDDUS, said: 'I have already written to the UK’s senior law officers urging them to direct courts to take into account the unique circumstances of COVID-19 during any related criminal claim against healthcare professionals.

'I am very encouraged that MPs support the principle of an independent, expert advisory committee. I look to ministers to take forward this as a matter of urgency as they plan for the aftermath of COVID-19.'

GMC statement

Early on in the pandemic, the GMC moved to reassure doctors that context would be taken into account in the event of any complaints from actions taken during this period.

A joint statement from the GMC, NHS England and the UK's chief medical officers made clear that while doctors are always expected to adhere to GMC principles and guidance, the difficult context in which they are working will be factored in if complaints arise - and that for junior doctors or students stepping up, 'we are determined to ensure the long-term prospects...are not compromised'.

However, the Medical Protection Society warned last month that doctors were vulnerable to criminal and regulatory investigations due to a lack of legal protection put in place by the government during the coronavirus crisis. 

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