The UK government failed in its duty of care to protect doctors and the wider healthcare workforce from avoidable harm during the Covid-19 pandemic, new reports have found.

The two reports, which were published by the BMA, collated data from thousands of doctors across the UK to create the most comprehensive account of the lived experiences of healthcare professionals during the pandemic.

“One of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced”

They reveal that the Covid-19 pandemic had a devastating impact on the physical and mental health healthcare professionals as individuals and on the NHS as a whole.

This impact could have been lessened if the UK government had not made so many mistakes, which the BMA calls “a failure of a duty of care to the workforce”.

Among the failures, the BMA highlights that many doctors were left unprotected due to critical shortages of PPE. This resulted in healthcare professionals becoming infected with Covid at a higher rate than the general population, with the BAME community suffering the largest consequences.

“95% of doctors who died in April 2020 were from an ethnic minority, a figure which demands that the UK Government addresses the deep race inequalities afflicting our NHS workforce,” said Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA chair of council.

Significant numbers of doctors suffered (and are still suffering) mental and physical exhaustion, with no opportunity for respite between tackling the various waves of the pandemic and now the “greatest backlog the NHS has ever faced.”

Dr Nagpaul says the reports add “clear evidence” as to why the government’s response to Covid has been named “one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced”, and demonstrates that “the UK Government failed in its duty of care to the medical profession.”

UK government must ensure they are better prepared for next pandemic

The reports makes various recommendations for the UK government to ensure that when a pandemic occurs in the future, we are better prepared to handle the consequences. These include:

  1. UK and devolved governments should carry out pandemic preparedness exercises for the most likely types of infections and ensure the same problems do not reoccur e.g. PPE stockpiling, testing, and public health capacity.
  2. Public health systems should be resourced and funded to have adequate contact tracing capacity and be able to rapidly scale up testing for future variants or pandemics.
  3. The UK Government needs to maintain an adequate rotating stockpile of suitable PPE and have plans to quickly scale up procurement and manufacturing if required.
  4. General wellbeing support including timely and accessible occupational health assessments and support to access psychological support services must be made available for staff at all levels across all health services, with specific support also offered to ensure staff can recover from the pressure of delivering care during a pandemic.
  5. The need for a continuous and transparent assessment of workforce shortages and future staffing requirement to ensure health services and public health systems are better prepared to deal with crises.
  6. Improve capital investment, modernise physical infrastructure and improve ventilation of the NHS estate.
  7. To mitigate inequity in the future, mechanisms must be introduced to make the experience of working in the NHS less variable by background or protected characteristic.

Dr Nagpaul said these lessons now need to be “learned and acted on … given that new variants, new viruses or future surges of demand can happen swiftly.

“We must never see a repeat of doctors and healthcare workers left exposed and vulnerable, and we can never afford to see another disaster on this scale ever again.”