UK government 'failed in duty of care to doctors' in pandemic, BMA warns

The UK government failed in its duty of care towards doctors and other healthcare staff by leaving them exposed to avoidable harm and suffering during the COVID-19 pandemic, the BMA has warned.

BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul (Photo: JH Lancy)

Reports by the BMA - based on testimony from thousands of doctors across the UK - highlight the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the profession and deliver evidence of 'mistake after mistake' by the UK government in its management of the pandemic.

Ministers are accused of 'presiding over inappropriate media assaults such as those undermining the hard work of GPs' instead of recognising the profession's 'remarkable' response to the pandemic - eroding goodwill that saw doctors through 'darker days' soon after the COVID-19 outbreak began.

The government's failure to support the medical profession and to explain why changes to care were essential during the pandemic 'cannot be ignored' as a factor that led to abuse experienced by NHS staff - particularly in general practice - the BMA warns.

Duty of care

The reports - the first of a series of five being compiled by the BMA, which will form part of its evidence to the UK COVID-19 public inquiry - make the case that repeated errors of judgment and policy on the part of the government amount to a failure in its duty of care to the NHS workforce.

Shortages of PPE left doctors unprotected during the pandemic - and hundreds lost their lives to COVID-19, the BMA reports warn. Around 95% of doctors who have died from COVID-19 were from ethnic minority backgrounds - exposing significantly increased risk faced by some groups.

Large numbers of doctors continue to experience mental and physical exhaustion in the face of an unprecedented backlog in care, they warn. Calls to the BMA counselling service in the year to January 2022 were up 173% compared with the year leading up to the pandemic - and surged from 200 a month to 800 at the peak of the pandemic.

More than four in five doctors said the term 'moral distress' resonated with their experience of working during the pandemic - citing shortages of staff, fear of passing on infection to family or friends, having to 'de-prioritise' some patients and deny families access to dying relatives among contributing factors.

Risk assessment

Risk assessments meant to protect staff at increased risk from COVID-19 were often not carried out or their results were ignored, the reports say - with some disabled doctors reporting they were left to 'feel like a burden to the health service'.

BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: 'A moral duty of government is to protect its own healthcare workers from harm in the course of duty, as they serve and protect the nation’s health. Yet, in reality, doctors were desperately let down by the UK government’s failure to adequately prepare for the pandemic, and its subsequent flawed decision-making, with tragic consequences.

'Many doctors were left unprotected due to critical shortages of PPE as coronavirus hit our shores, resulting in healthcare professionals becoming infected at a higher rate than the rest of the population. Hundreds of healthcare workers lost their lives.'

Dr Nagpaul said frontline doctors 'saw levels of illness and death they were never trained for', warning of ongoing mental and physical exhaustion as well as symptoms of long COVID for many that have undermined their ability to work.

Public health failure

He added: 'These reports add clear evidence of why the UK government’s response to COVID-19 has been described as "one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced". The evidence presented in our reports also demonstrates, unequivocally, that the UK government failed in its duty of care to the medical profession.

NHS Confederation policy director Dr Layla McCay urged the government to act on findings from the BMA reports, warning that 'harrowing accounts from frontline doctors' resonated with statements from NHS leaders about the impact of the pandemic on staff.

She said: 'While the threat of coronavirus has not disappeared, its legacy already features an exhausted workforce, eye-watering treatment backlogs, and widened health inequalities.'

The cost of living crisis and healthcare staff shortages had left the NHS trying to tackle the backlog 'with one arm tied behind its back'. She added: 'Health leaders are wondering what more it will take for the government to recognise that a fully funded, long-term plan for the expansion of the health and care workforce is desperately needed.'

NHS staff

A government spokesperson said: 'We are incredibly grateful to NHS staff for their tireless work during the pandemic, who went above and beyond to protect the public.

'We have delivered over 19.8bn items of PPE to frontline NHS staff - these items have provided vital protection including at a time when there were no vaccines and limited treatment options.

'The health and social care secretary has set out how we will support the NHS to recover from the pandemic and tackle the COVID-19 backlog - including by providing over £36bn through the health and social care levy, setting up surgical hubs and 160 community diagnostic centres, and recruiting 50,000 extra nurses.

'We are committed to learning lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic and will respond openly and transparently to the Inquiry and fully consider all recommendations made.'

Labour shadow health and social care secretary Wes Streeting said: 'Boris Johnson likes to boast that he got the big calls right during the pandemic - he should tell that to the doctors and nurses on the frontline.

'The report shows how a decade of Conservative mismanagement left the NHS understaffed, under-resourced, and ill-equipped to cope with COVID-19.

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