Survey reveals public support for NHS to be shielded from COVID-19 litigation

The NHS could be overwhelmed by an avalanche of negligence claims over the next few years.

A survey commissioned by the Medical Defence Union (MDU) of 2,108 UK adults has found that 70% think doctors, dentists and other NHS staff involved in providing treatment to patients during the COVID-19 pandemic should be able to do so without the risk of the NHS being sued for negligence. What's more, only 7% of respondents disagreed with this, according to the survey, which was carried out by Savanta Comres*.

As more NHS services resume, the MDU, the UK's leading medical defence organisation, is calling for the government to take action to stop the NHS being overwhelmed by an avalanche of negligence claims over the next few years.

Dr Christine Tomkins, MDU chief executive said:

"We know the public has enormous respect for the sacrifices healthcare professionals have made during the pandemic. Millions have been showing their support by clapping for carers and keyworkers every Thursday and the NHS Charities Together appeal has raised an amazing £100 million in just six weeks. However, 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 NHS and its staff need the government to take action to ensure the NHS is exempted from an avalanche of negligence claims that may otherwise follow the pandemic."

For legal and economic reasons, unrelated to the safe care it continues to provide, the cost of NHS medical negligence has climbed steeply in recent years. By March 2019, NHS Resolution estimated that accumulated claims could amount to £83.4bn.

The MDU's members alone have reported 500 patient complaints since the start of lockdown on 23 March. Many complaints were related to the effect of COVID-19 on NHS care.

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.

"Several US states have introduced legal protections for healthcare workers. If there is political will to make this happen, as we have seen in other areas of policy, there is no reason why an exemption shouldn't be granted.

"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."

*On behalf of the MDU, Savanta ComRes interviewed 2,108 UK adults online between 12 and 14 June 2020. Further details about the survey and full data tables can be found at

This page was correct at publication on 23/06/2020. 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.