MDU calls for national debate over protecting NHS from COVID-19 clinical negligence claims

The Medical Defence Union (MDU) says doctors should be spared from the stress and anxiety of medical negligence claims following the pandemic.

In a story in today's Guardian the MDU explained that 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 the US and UK, in primary and secondary care, doctors are being asked to work outside their expertise in areas where they may not have the most up-to-date knowledge. Retired doctors have been called back to work and final year medical students are starting work early. Other treatments and surgeries are being delayed to cope with the influx of coronavirus patients.

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.

Dr Christine Tomkins, MDU chief executive, said:

"We are concerned that medical liability claims will come long after public memory of the sacrifices made by healthcare workers have been forgotten and the circumstances of the pandemic which requires people to work outside their speciality and beyond their experience will also be forgotten.

"NHS Resolution will handle and pay claims as doctors and other healthcare professionals are state indemnified for the work they are doing treating patients with COVID-19 and providing other essential NHS services in response to the pandemic. However doctors will still be involved in claims and we know that facing allegations of negligence can be extremely distressing for the practitioners involved. We are not aware of any claims yet, but we are already aware of complaints arising from COVID-19 and its effect on other services.

"Our members are working under tremendous pressure, taking difficult decisions about patient care in very challenging conditions and we want them to be able to do so without fear they will be unfairly judged in the months and years ahead. Doctors must be accountable for their actions but the GMC has already recognised that different considerations will need to be applied when investigating complaints.

"We believe there needs to be a public debate about whether it is right to sue the NHS for patient care around the COVID-19 pandemic. Any compensation paid will be a drain on NHS resources and disastrous for the morale of staff who are acting so selflessly and courageously. Claims will also place an additional burden on taxpayers, who will be facing all the economic consequences of the pandemic. It would be better to allow the NHS to focus its time, efforts and financial resources on recovering from the pandemic."

This guidance was correct at publication 20/04/2020. It 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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