Why hundreds of UK GPs are backing Doctors for Extinction Rebellion

Hundreds of UK GPs have joined a medical branch of the high-profile protest group Extinction Rebellion, which uses civil disobedience to push for action to stop climate change.

Trafalgar Square protest (Photo: Doctors for Extinction Rebellion)

The UK parliament declared an environment and climate emergency in May after Extinction Rebellion protests that saw more than 1,000 arrests - and protests have continued through 2019.

More than 700 UK health professionals - around half of them GPs - have joined Doctors for Extinction Rebellion, which describes itself as ‘a collective of doctors who, appreciating that climate change is an impending public health catastrophe, have decided to undertake civil disobedience with Extinction Rebellion’.

East London GP registrar Dr Rita Issa, an organiser with Doctors for Extinction Rebellion, told GPonline that she felt doctors had a duty to their patients to take action on climate change.

Good Medical Practice

The group’s website points to the GMC’s Good Medical Practice guidance, highlighting two statements it believes make the case for doctors to act.

The guidance makes clear that doctors ‘must take prompt action if you think that patient safety, dignity or comfort may be compromised’, and that doctors should ‘make sure that your conduct justifies your patients’ trust in you and the public’s trust in the profession’.

NICE guidance for GPs says they should refer patients on the two-week urgent pathway if they believe they are at 3% or higher risk of cancer.

But Doctors for Extinction Rebellion points out that some researchers say there is a 10% risk that global temperatures will rise by 6% - something that would have ‘unimaginable’ consequences for the planet and population health.

Clinical risk

Dr Issa said: ‘As GPs we work with risk all the time - the risks of this are too great to ignore. If a patient with this level of risk was sitting in front of us and we didn’t act, we would be negligent. This applies to population health too.’

The Bromley-by-Bow GP trainee, who is also an academic clinical fellow, said that although some doctors taking part in protests had been among those arrested for non-violent action, this was ‘not something I would expect everyone to do’.

Dr Issa said: ‘I know for myself I have never been one to break the rules and find it quite uncomfortable. Though I am involved with Doctors for Extinction Rebellion I have not been arrested - that's not a prerequisite for joining the movement.

Protesters arrested

‘Doctors who have been arrested have chosen to risk their liberty and to go through a GMC process out of their duty as a doctor.

‘We hope when it comes to trials and to GMC hearings that the GMC will see how conscientious they are and that these doctors are doing it for public health and not anything else. In a broken system it makes sense that we need to break the rules sometimes - for example, when the government is not acting fast enough.’

Dr Issa added that the NHS itself - and other health systems - could do far more to lead by example on sustainability. She pointed out that the NHS ‘produces 5.4% of UK total carbon emissions’, adding that ‘globally, if healthcare were a country, it would be the fifth largest emitter on the planet’.

Doctors for Extinction Rebellion recently laid out 110 pairs of shoes in Trafalgar Square to highlight the 40,000 excess deaths a year in the UK - 110 a day - from air pollution.

Dr Issa urged GPs interested in joining the group and pressing for action on climate change to visit its website and contact a local group.

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