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GP practices threatened with legal action for asking patients to wear a face covering

by Costanza Pearce
12 July 2021

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GPs have been threatened with legal action by patients who object to being asked to wear a face covering in their practice, Pulse has learned.

The BMA said the claims for financial compensation attempt to ‘coerce GPs into breaking public health safeguards’ and put both staff and patients at risk.

It comes as the Prime Minister announced last week that it will no longer be a legal requirement for patients to wear face masks in GP practices or any other setting from 19 July if the step four easing goes ahead – which is set to be confirmed today.

The legal requirement will be replaced with guidance that ‘will suggest where you might choose’ to wear a mask, he said.

Current Public Health England guidance outlining the legal requirements around masks states: ‘Face coverings are needed in NHS settings, including hospitals and primary or community care settings, such as GP surgeries.’

The measure was first introduced in June 2020 when face coverings were made compulsory for hospitals and the rule was extended to GP practices – although some exemptions apply.

But the BMA has told Pulse that it has heard ‘a number of reports’ of practices being threatened with legal action for asking patients to wear a face covering.

BMA GP Committee deputy chair Dr Mark Sanford-Wood said: ‘We have received a number of reports of practices being threatened with actions under the Equalities Act from solicitors representing people who have objected to being asked to wear a face covering to attend their surgery.’

He added that it is ‘difficult to see how such claims for financial redress could be justified’ under the Act and that they ‘have the appearance of attempting to coerce GPs into breaking public health safeguards and therefore putting themselves, their staff and other patients at risk’.  

Dr Sanford-Wood said: ‘These actions have the appearance of using the Equalities Act for a purpose for which it was clearly not intended and are a direct threat to reasonable public health measures designed to save lives.’

The BMA is considering how it can support practices in their response the claims, he added.

GPs have been warning since May that many Covid-symptomatic patients are attending face-to-face appointments having only had a negative rapid lateral flow test (LFT), putting GPs and staff at risk.

In August, NHS England said practices should ‘risk assess’ any patients who refuse to wear a mask and that it would ‘fully support’ them in deciding to only provide care via a remote appointment. It had previously said that practices cannot refuse to treat patients who will not wear a face covering.

Meanwhile, despite Mr Johnson’s plan for mandatory mask-wearing to be dropped, England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said he would wear one ‘particularly at this point when the epidemic is clearly significant and rising’.

He said that he would wear a face mask in certain scenarios, including in indoors and crowded situations or when asked to do so ‘by any competent authority’.

The BMA has called for the Government to keep some ‘targeted’ measures in place when wider restrictions lift – including the requirement to wear a mask in healthcare settings and on public transport.

This article first appeared on our sister title, Pulse.