Union seeks legal immunity for NHS medics in pandemic | Society

The NHS could be faced with billions of pounds of medical negligence claims if it does not grant some form of legal immunity to medics risking their lives during the pandemic, the government has been warned.

The Medical Defence Union (MDU), which provides legal support to around 200,000 doctors, nurses, dentists and other healthcare workers, is calling for a debate over the need for emergency legislation.

Several US states including New York, New Jersey and Michigan have already adopted laws that provide healthcare professionals and hospitals with “immunity from civil liability for any injury or death alleged to have been sustained because of any acts or omissions undertaken in good faith” during the crisis.

In both the US and UK, doctors are being asked to work outside their expertise in areas where they may not have the most up-to-date knowledge, the MDU points out.

Retired doctors have been called back to the wards and medical students sent out before they have finished training. Other treatments and surgeries are being delayed to cope with the influx of coronavirus patients.

The UK government has promised to cover the cost of any future legal actions by providing indemnities, but the MDU says this could still cost the country vast sums and expose those who have volunteered to “extremely distressing” and potentially career-damaging hearings.

The cost of medical negligence in the NHS has climbed steeply in recent years. In 2018, NHS Resolution estimated the accumulated claims it was facing amounted to £83.4bn.

The MDU, which is the largest medical defence organisation in the UK, is concerned that a deluge of medical liability lawsuits could be served on healthcare workers long after the memory of their sacrifices and the circumstances of the pandemic has faded.

With medical staff taking difficult decisions about patient care in challenging conditions, the MDU wants them to be able to work without fear they will be unfairly judged in the years to come.

It accepts that doctors should be accountable for their actions and it is therefore calling for a public debate over legal immunity and whether the NHS should be able to be sued for patient care related to the Covid-19 outbreak. It says any compensation paid out would be a drain on NHS resources and the taxpayer as well as being damaging to staff morale.

Dr Christine Tomkins, the MDU’s chief executive, said: “Our practitioners are being asked to work in conditions that are drastically changed. We have not received any claims yet [related to coronavirus] but we aware of some complaints about treatment of patients.

“This could be a very great drain on healthcare resources. It would take money from frontline services. We want to have sensible debate about it. It’s for society to decide whether it’s proper in such wholly exceptional circumstances.”

She added: “Doctors are having to work in very difficult circumstances. These are people who, very bravely, are working to the best of their ability. It should not be underestimated how distressing allegations of clinical negligence are for doctors.

“[Medical negligence] claims are already out of control. Awards are based on 1948 legislation which says that all future care will be [paid for as] private [medical care]. If we keep taking money out of the NHS we reduce its resources. It’s a vicious circle.”

The Department of Health has said its emergency clinical negligence indemnity will cover healthcare workers. The Coronavirus Act 2020 introduced new indemnity powers. The department declined to comment on the calls for legal immunity.

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