In Brief

Coroners told to ignore PPE shortages in NHS worker death inquests

Labour ‘very worried’ by chief coroner's guidance on inquests

Coroners have been told that inquests into coronavirus deaths among NHS workers should avoid examining systemic failures in provision of personal protective equipment (PPE).

The Evening Standard reports that Mark Lucraft QC, the chief coroner for England and Wales, has issued guidance that “an inquest would not be a satisfactory means of deciding whether adequate general policies and arrangements were in place for provision of PPE to healthcare workers”.

He added that although “if there were reason to suspect that some human failure contributed to the person being infected with the virus”, an inquest may be necessary, “an inquest is not the right forum for addressing concerns about high-level government or public policy.”

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Labour has expressed concern over the move. Lord Falconer, the shadow attorney general, said: “I am very worried that an impression is being given that coroners will never investigate whether a failure to provide PPE led to the death of a key worker. This guidance may have an unduly restricting effect on the width of inquests arising out of Covid-19-related deaths.”

Rinesh Parmar, the chair of the Doctors Association UK, has also expressed concern. He said: “The provision of PPE is so vital to the safety of health workers that to suggest coroners do not consider its supply in detail misses a big part of the picture.”

He added: “Only comprehensive inquests into the deaths of every NHS and care worker will give the bereaved the ability to ask questions and have the circumstances of their loved ones’ deaths fully explained.”

Explaining his guidance, Lucraft cited a court ruling that found that while it was right for an inquest to consider whether a soldier had died because a flak jacket had been pierced by a sniper’s bullet, it was not within its scope to rule on whether more effective flak jackets should have been supplied by the Ministry of Defence.

However, The Conversation points out that coroners have previously ruled on the provision of protective equipment. Oxfordshire assistant deputy coroner Andrew Walker, who investigated the death of Steve Roberts, a tank commander who died in Iraq, concluded that the lack of appropriate basic equipment was “unforgivable and inexcusable and represents a breach of trust that those soldiers have in the government”.

Although the government says there have been 49 verified deaths of NHS staff from Covid-19 during the pandemic, an estimated 127 deaths have been reported in the media. The Guardian says “the true figure is likely to be higher because not all deaths will be in the public domain”.

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