Matt Hancock has said there will be no immediate change in the law to protect doctors from legal action over Covid-19 treatment decisions made under the pressures of the pandemic.
A coalition of health bodies wrote to the Government urging it to update legislation to ensure medical workers do not feel “vulnerable to the risk of prosecution for unlawful killing” when treating coronavirus patients “in circumstances beyond their control”.
But the Health Secretary said it was “not necessary” to change the law as medics were not yet being forced to make such critical decisions.
Speaking at a Downing Street press conference, Mr Hancock said: “I am very glad to say that we are not in a position where doctors have to make those sorts of choices and I very much hope that we don’t get in that situation and everybody can get the treatment that they deserve.
“The clear advice that I have at the moment is that it is not necessary at this point to change the law on this matter. Of course, I keep this under review and take very seriously questions of this nature.”
Health groups, including the British Medical Association, argued there was no legal protection for Covid-related issues, such as when there are “surges in demand for resources that temporarily exceed supply”.
It came as Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned there was a “very substantial” risk of hospital intensive care units being overwhelmed.
The letter highlighted that in November Mr Johnson had warned of a “medical and moral disaster” if the NHS was overwhelmed, where “doctors and nurses could be forced to choose which patients to treat, who would live and who would die”.
The health groups wrote: “With the chief medical officers now determining that there is a material risk of the NHS being overwhelmed within weeks, our members are worried that not only do they face being put in this position but also that they could subsequently be vulnerable to a criminal investigation by the police.”
They said in their letter to Mr Hancock that despite there being guidance covering decisions on whether to administer or withdraw treatment, this “neither provides nor claims to provide legal protection”.
The letter said: “It also does not consider Covid 19-specific factors such as if and when there are surges in demand for resources that temporarily exceed supply.”
🇬🇧 UK health leaders have united in calling @DHSCgovuk for emergency laws to protect healthcare workers who could be at risk of inappropriate legal challenge when treating 'covid19 patients in good faith & in circumstances beyond their control. https://t.co/UXEHrkCiMl
— Medical Protection (@MPS_Medical) January 16, 2021
It added: “We do not believe it is right that healthcare professionals should suffer from the moral injury and long-term psychological damage that could result from having to make decisions on how limited resources are allocated, while at the same time being left vulnerable to the risk of prosecution for unlawful killing.”
The health groups said no healthcare professional should be “above the law” and that emergency legislation should only apply to decisions “made in good faith” and “in circumstances beyond their control and in compliance with relevant guidance”.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “Dedicated frontline NHS staff should be able to focus on treating patients and saving lives during the pandemic without fear of legal action.
“We have reassured NHS staff that existing indemnity arrangements will rightly continue to cover the vast majority of liabilities which may arise, and we have made specific arrangements so any member of staff not covered by existing indemnity schemes will be protected under the Coronavirus Act.
“Health and care professional regulators have issued a joint statement making clear any concerns raised will be considered in the context of the challenging circumstances staff are operating in.”