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Doctors want immunity for prosecution over COVID decisions

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Doctor organisations have called for immunity from prosecution to UK doctors forced to choose which patients to treat during the coronavirus pandemic, reports The Guardian.

In a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the Medical Protection Society (MPS) called on the UK government to prevent criminal or disciplinary action being taken against doctors over clinical decisions made due to scarcity of medical resources. The MPS called on the government to pass emergency legislation creating a statutory defence for doctors over their clinical decisions during the crisis.

The government has sought to reassure doctors by promising emergency financial indemnity during the pandemic. But it has resisted going further through providing temporary immunity from prosecution.

The MPS argues that any emergency legal protection should be restricted to the period of the pandemic and exclude cases involving intentional criminal harm, or reckless misconduct.

The request is supported by the medical campaign group the Doctors’ Association UK. A similar law has already been introduced in New York state.

At the start of the pandemic, the Medical Defence Union (MDU), which provides legal support to around 200,000 doctors, nurses, dentists and other healthcare workers, also called for a debate over the need for emergency legislation.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “New protections during Covid-19 mean that frontline NHS staff and hospitals can focus on treating patients with greater confidence and ensure that patients have access to redress if things go wrong.”

The letter to Johnson, signed by Dr Rob Hendry, medical director at the MPS, says: “Decisions on whether to administer or withdraw treatment have long been made on the basis of what is in the best interest of the patient in front of them. In normal times, general guidance to be followed on a case by case basis is often sufficient.

“However, there is general acceptance that other factors will have to be considered if, and when, localised outbreaks of Covid-19 lead to surges in demand that temporarily exceed supply.

“The moral and emotional burden of effectively choosing who lives or dies should not be placed on the shoulders of frontline staff, not least as they could then be vulnerable to allegations of unlawful killing.

“As a result, the medical and moral disaster for the doctor might not just be the moral injury and long-term psychological damage suffered, but also the risk of personal accountability if and when legal challenges arise.”

The MPS is a not-for-profit organisation made up of doctors, dentists and healthcare workers. Founded in 1982, it has more than 300,000 members around the world. It provides support for medical workers involved in clinical negligence claims, complaints, medical and dental council inquiries, disciplinary procedures, inquests and fatal accident inquiries.

The government should follow the example of the Emergency Disaster Treatment Protection Act which, the MPS says, “granted temporary immunity from civil and criminal liability to New York healthcare professionals” for the purpose of promoting public health during the emergency.

Dr Jenny Vaughan, vice-chair of the Doctors’ Association UK, said her organisation wholeheartedly supports the MPS campaign to introduce emergency legislation to “protect doctors from criminal prosecution or disciplinary action if they have to choose which patient should live and who are left to die due to scarce medical resources.

“It was a concern for many doctors during the first wave of the pandemic and without such legislation doctors are potentially placed in a no-win scenario facing criminal prosecution, whilst making impossible decisions in extreme circumstances resulting from systemic failures beyond their control. This risk hangs heavy over the medical profession during the ongoing second wave.”

 

Full The Guardian report

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