Rob Hendry: Legal protection for doctors—time for change?

At the start of the covid-19 pandemic, the government was quick to confirm indemnity arrangements for those facing clinical negligence claims resulting from their work during this time, and this was a welcome intervention.

At MPS however we felt the government could have gone further; by introducing emergency laws to protect healthcare professionals from unfair actions by their employer, regulator or—in the most extreme of cases—by the criminal justice system.

The recently published GMC staff guidance setting out how to take the covid-19 context into account when considering complaints, will have provided some much-needed reassurance for doctors. But it is only guidance—is this enough? It could be some time—years even—before such investigations are handled by GMC staff and our concern remains that at this point memories of these unique and challenging circumstances may have faded. 

Six months into the pandemic, it is easy to forget that covid-19 is still new disease. Our understanding of it is growing but it is still limited. Resources remain stretched, many doctors continue to work outside of their normal area of expertise and others have made the selfless decision to join the workforce early or to return from retirement to support the NHS.  

Many doctors remain concerned that they will face investigation for difficult clinical decisions made in good faith. The suspension of routine investigations and outpatient appointments, and the resulting backlog of referrals, will also give rise to medicolegal disputes and investigations. 

On top of that, a second wave of the virus looms just as winter is approaching, and many doctors are physically and emotionally exhausted.

Sadly, we are far from seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and the need for legal protection for doctors has not passed by. Arguably, the need is even greater.

On 30 September the Coronavirus Act, which was passed by Parliament in March, is due to be reviewed (as required under Section 98 of the Act) and the renewal of the powers within the Act will be voted on by MPs. There is a real opportunity here for this issue to be addressed, and for emergency laws to be introduced.

Such legal protections should be temporary, applicable only over the duration of the pandemic, and of course not apply to wilful or intentional criminal harm or reckless misconduct.

We understand legislative changes can be complex, however at the height of the pandemic the Government demonstrated how quickly it can move to introduce new Bills and bring temporary changes to regulations, where necessary. 

Introducing temporary, emergency laws to protect the healthcare workers who have sacrificed so much, would be a bold and much needed show of support, and with drive and commitment we believe it is achievable. 

We hope the opportunity presented by the 6-monthly review of the Coronavirus Act on 30 September, will be seized.  

Rob Hendry is medical director at the Medical Protection Society.

Competing interests: The MPS provides the right to request access to expert advice and support on clinical negligence claims, complaints, GMC investigations, disciplinaries, inquests, and criminal charges such as gross negligence manslaughter. This article was not commissioned.