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Coronavirus: Frontline NHS deaths 'should be investigated by coroners' over PPE concerns
23 April 2020, 10:13
The deaths of frontline NHS and care workers from coronavirus should be investigated by coroners to make sure they did not catch it due to a lack of protective equipment, medics have said.
Consultant surgeon John Robertson, professor of surgery at the University of Nottingham, and colleagues said that failing to provide the best PPE was "playing roulette" with lives.
Writing in the BMJ, they questioned whether there could be confidence health or social care workers did not catch coronavirus at work without referring their deaths to coroners.
They said if the Government was "truly confident" health and social care staff were properly protected, an inquest should be "no cause for concern."
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on Wednesday that 69 NHS workers had died during the pandemic, but the total is thought to be much higher.
They added: "Ultimately, policy on this issue is inextricable from the uncomfortable moral question: to what level of added occupational risk is our Government prepared to expose our healthcare workforce?
"Without referring each health and social care worker's death to the coroner, can we be confident that the circumstances of their employment have not resulted in these individuals paying the ultimate price through their daily work?
"The Government have intimated that an investigation would be carried out into the extent to which health workers had caught the virus on the front line, but there will be little trust in any investigation conducted behind heavy Whitehall doors.
"If this administration is truly confident that health and social care workers have been adequately protected, the prospect of a coroner's inquest should be no cause for concern."
Their comments were echoed by BMJ editor-in-chief Dr Fiona Godlee on Thursday, who said the political and healthcare leaders had failed to protect staff.
She added: "It is impossible not to feel let down by political and healthcare leaders who, while sloganning, clapping for, and praising the NHS, have so evidently failed to protect those who work within it.
"So that we can learn for the future, honour the sacrifice, and seek compensation for families, all deaths of health and social care workers should be referred to the coroner for independent review."
Prof Robertson and colleagues said that doctors have specific responsibilities with regard to the reporting of deaths.
If it is thought that a death could be due to an injury or disease attributable to any employment or through exposure to a toxic substance, they are obliged to inform the coroner, they added.
Prof Robertson and his team also said that there were fears about how effective some PPE was in preventing infection from aerosol particles - fine particles or liquid droplets in air.
The team said until it is clear how much transmission is due to aerosol surgical masks should not be considered effective protection if a person breathes or coughs over someone.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: "The death of any NHS worker is a tragedy and the whole country recognises the bravery of nurses, doctors, social care workers and many others who put themselves at risk to save lives during this global outbreak.
"We are working around the clock to ensure PPE, including gowns, is delivered as quickly as possible to those on the front line of this global pandemic for as long as it is required.
"We have delivered over one billion items since the outbreak began and there is a 24-hour NHS-run helpline where NHS and social care workers can call to report shortages in supply."