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Public supports call for NHS liability immunity during Covid-19, as ‘avalanche’ of complaints looms

by Awil Mohamoud
26 June 2020

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The majority of Britons believe NHS staff should be given legal immunity from negligence claims during the Covid-19 pandemic, a Medical Defence Union (MDU) survey has found. 

NHS workers registered with the union have reported 500 complaints since the start of the lockdown in March – a figure the MDU said is ‘just the tip of the iceberg’. 

As more routine services resume, the NHS is expected to be ‘overwhelmed’ by an ‘avalanche’ of negligence claims over the next few years, unless the Government steps in to give staff legal immunity, the MDU said. 

The union’s survey of 2,100 UK adults found that 70% ‘strongly’ or ‘tend’ to support imposing legal protection for NHS workers during the pandemic, while only 7% ‘strongly’ or ‘tend’ to oppose it. 

The complaints, many made against primary care staff, have, for instance, involved patients being denied additional ‘non essential’ medication where deemed not appropriate. Some patients were unhappy they could not see a doctor in person for minor problems, such as ear syringing. 

Others were disgruntled at being left off the shielding list or a delay in adding them to it. Patients also complained about staff wearing ‘inadequate’ PPE.

The MDU said that while the overall number of complaints it has encountered is comparable to other years, it is still ‘unexpected’ given reports that many patients have not been consulting GPs for routine matters. 

A number of US states, including Illinois, New York and New Jersey, have introduced legal protections for healthcare workers. 

MDU chief executive Dr Christine Tomkins said: ‘We are fearful that NHS finances, already affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, could be overwhelmed in just a few years by the cost of negligence claims that are likely to follow without government intervention. 

‘The survey shows that the majority of the public agrees with us that this cannot be allowed to happen.’

The cost of NHS medical negligence claims has increased steeply in recent years, with accumulated claims amounting to £83.4bn as of March 2019.  

Dr Tomkins continued: ‘Staff responding to Covid-19 are likely to be judged long after the public memory has faded, and by standards unreflective of current conditions. Anyone who says otherwise, to try to reassure doctors involved in dealing with the pandemic, hasn’t experienced the harsh reality of clinical negligence claims. It is unlikely the courts will relax long established legal principles in judging the standard of care provided.

‘Doctors recognise they must be accountable for their actions – through complaints procedures, for example, or by their regulator. But clinical negligence claims are about compensation, not accountability.

‘One thing is clear – the pandemic has made us all re-evaluate what is important to us as a society. This is a golden opportunity to do what’s right for the NHS, recognising the personal sacrifices healthcare workers have made.’


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