Medical groups say current guidelines don’t protect doctors from prosecution (Picture: REX)
A coalition of medical bodies are calling for new laws to protect doctors and nurses from legal action over critical coronavirus treatment decisions.
The groups say medics could be burdened with ‘inappropriate’ charges as there is no legal protection over Covid-related pressures such as ‘surges in demand for resources that temporarily exceed supply’.
They argue medical workers will continue feeling ‘vulnerable to the risk of prosecution for unlawful killing’ when treating coronavirus patients ‘in circumstances beyond their control’ unless the law is updated.
In a letter to Health Secretary Matt Hancock they highlighted warnings by Boris Johnson in November that if the NHS is overwhelmed ‘doctors and nurses could be forced to choose which patients to treat, who would live and who would die’.
What he described then as a ‘medical and moral disaster’ came closer to reality this week as he said there is a ‘very substantial’ risk of hospital intensive care units being overwhelmed from the latest wave of coronavirus cases.
The letter was co-ordinated by the Medical Protection Society, and signed by the British Medical Association, Doctors’ Association UK, the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association, the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin and Medical Defence Shield.
It read: ‘With the chief medical officers now determining that there is a material risk of the NHS being overwhelmed within weeks, our members are worried that not only do they face being put in this position but also that they could subsequently be vulnerable to a criminal investigation by the police.’
The bodies said current guidance for doctors treating Covid patients ‘neither provides nor claims to provide legal protection’.
There is widespread fear the NHS could be overwhelmed amid the latest wave of cases (Picture: REX)
They added: ‘It also does not consider Covid 19-specific factors such as if and when there are surges in demand for resources that temporarily exceed supply.
‘There is no national guidance, backed up by a clear statement of law, on when life sustaining treatment can be lawfully withheld or withdrawn from a patient in order for it to benefit a different patient, and if so under what conditions.
‘The first concern of a doctor is their patients and providing the highest standard of care at all times.
‘We do not believe it is right that healthcare professionals should suffer from the moral injury and long-term psychological damage that could result from having to make decisions on how limited resources are allocated, while at the same time being left vulnerable to the risk of prosecution for unlawful killing.’
Medical experts said the law should be temporary and apply to all decisions since the pandemic began (Picture: REX)
The letter stressed that emergency legislation should not place medics ‘above the law’ and should only apply to decisions ‘made in good faith’ and ‘in circumstances beyond their control and in compliance with relevant guidance’.
It called for a temporary law that applies retrospectively from the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
A January survey of around 2,420 Medical Protection Society members found that 61 per cent were worried about being investigated as a result of a clinical decision made in a high-pressure environment.
More than a third were concerned about being investigated after having to ‘withdraw or withhold life prolonging treatment due to capacity and resource constraints during the pandemic’.
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