Ombudsman complaints during pandemic

Complaints to the ombudsman may increase as services resume.

Recognising the additional pressure on the delivery of NHS services caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, on 26 March the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) paused work on existing complaints and on acceptance of new complaints. On 1 July the PHSO began to progress existing complaints and to accept new ones.

The PHSO also extended the time limit in order to accept complaints that would have been made between 26 March and 30 June. Complainants whose complaints would otherwise have exceeded the 12-month time limit were given to 1 September to make the complaint.

As complaints processes resumed, NHS bodies were asked to add the following paragraph to final decision letters:

"If you're not happy with our final response to your complaint and would like to take the matter further, you can contact the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. The Ombudsman makes final decisions on complaints that have not been resolved by the NHS, government departments and some other public organisations. The service is free for everyone. To take a complaint to the Ombudsman, go to www.ombudsman.org.uk/making-complaint or call 0345 015 4033. It is important that you make the complaint as soon as you receive our final response as there are time limits for the Ombudsman to look into complaints."

Increasing complaints numbers

The MDU believes an increase in PHSO complaints is possible as our members continued to receive complaints between March and June and in the following months. Since lockdown began we have assisted members with over 1,600 complaints and adverse incident files. Many of these are COVID related.

The PHSO recognises that continued pressures on the NHS and a likely increase in numbers of complaints may continue to affect their response times and promises regular updates on its website.

The PHSO website also provides advice for those who are responding to complaints as the pandemic continues. This makes it clear the PHSO will continue to take a flexible approach on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the pressure on resources caused by coronavirus. There is also an undertaking: "Where organisations have clear reasons for needing a delay or an extension to a deadline we have been agreeing this and will continue to do so."

The PHSO believes there may be a significant number of complaints related to the effect of pandemic on the NHS and is considering how to respond if this happens.

We continue to assist members with responses to PHSO complaints and will keep you updated if there are any further changes to the PHSO's procedure.

You can read our update on local resolution complaints procedures here.

Scotland

Throughout the initial stages of the pandemic, the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO) continued to respond to existing and new complaints while making it clear the work it is able to do will be limited for the foreseeable future.

The SPSO publishes specific advice for public service organisations, and has also published an FAQ booklet for those responsible for responding to complaints. The ombudsman continues to prioritise work to identify "complaints that relate directly to current service provision for vulnerable people, and those where we believe there is a real and present risk to public health and safety." These complaints are progressed as a priority, though the ombudsman's office expects to have to contact an NHS body only exceptionally about such cases.

Recognising NHS bodies remain under considerable pressure, the ombudsman adds: "we hope you will appreciate that if we make contact it is due to the urgent nature of the case and so would greatly appreciate your support in such instances."

The SPSO will continue to progress all other complaints as far as possible given the changing circumstances created by COVID-19, reminding NHS organisations that its model complaints handling procedure allows for timescales to be extended wherever necessary.

We will let members know if there are further changes.

Wales

The Public Services Ombudsman for Wales did not pause the ombudsman's complaints service. In March the ombudsman gave an undertaking not to add to the pressures on those providing health services and to take full account of the effect of the pandemic on the NHS in assessing and investigating complaints. Complainants were also asked to consider the additional challenges the NHS was facing as a result of the pandemic when using the service.

Service providers were encouraged to set realistic timescales for responses and reminded they could extend timescales in exceptional circumstances. They were also advised: "Where possible, you may wish to add automatic responses to email inboxes (reducing the demand for you to reply manually) and explain when complainants can realistically expect a response. Further information will be given as the situation develops." This advice still stands.

Further advice published on 28 April made it clear that, in view of the pressures on the NHS, the ombudsman was discouraging the submission of minor complaints to NHS and to the ombudsman. "If there is a legitimate complaint but the matter is minor or trivial with limited personal impact, we will not take it forward. Likewise in relation to Code of Conduct complaints we will be strictly applying our 'public interest test' to ensure that we investigate only serious matters."

We will keep members updated with any further changes and you can also access updates on the ombudsman's website.

Northern Ireland

The Public Services Ombudsman in Northern Ireland continued to respond to complaints throughout the initial stages of the pandemic, stating its support to public bodies and recognising that their priorities must be to minimise the health risks posed by the coronavirus and to continue to provide essential services.

Staff continue to prioritise existing casework and to consider how best to deal with new cases in the circumstances. They remain aware that they need to respond flexibly especially in circumstances where their enquiries of public bodies have the potential to create difficulties or unreasonable pressure.

The ombudsman's phone line operates between 9am to 1pm, Monday to Thursday. We will let members know if there are further changes.

This page was correct at publication on 17/09/2020. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

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