Doctors’ groups want the government to do more to protect them from clinical negligence claims if they are forced to make life-or-death Covid-19 decisions.
Chief medical officers have warned that hospitals in England could be overwhelmed with coronavirus cases in the coming weeks, and groups representing doctors fear they could face legal repercussions if they are forced to choose which patients should be prioritised for care.
The Gazette understands that barristers have already been asked to advise NHS trusts on how to lawfully refuse treatment to people suffering from the virus in hospital, because there are not enough staff or resources to care for everyone.
The government insists the law will protect medics, but this assurance has done little to ease fears about them facing criminal and civil consequences from decisions largely out of their control.
A letter to health secretary Matt Hancock signed by seven medical groups states that doctors should not be above the law, but that emergency legislation should still be passed to protect them from inappropriate legal challenges.
The letter said: ‘The government moved quickly to create clarity over indemnity arrangements for clinical negligence claims via the Coronavirus Act 2020, and the GMC also acted to reassure doctors by publishing guidance for their staff on how they will take the context created by Covid-19 into account when considering complaints about doctors. While these measures are positive, they do not address the concerns we are highlighting.’
Michael Mylonas QC, from Serjeants’ Inn, said that doctors in emergency departments are taking decisions as to who should receive certain services, and this reality should be accompanied by legal certainty.
‘In the absence of national guidance, doctors in different hospitals – perhaps even neighbouring hospitals –may well apply different criteria and reach different decisions,’ he added. ‘This places an enormous additional burden on healthcare workers, provides no certainty about the treatment that will be available on attending hospital and invites legal challenge.’
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: ‘Dedicated frontline NHS staff should be able to focus on treating patients and saving lives during the pandemic without fear of legal action.’