Coronavirus: Doctors and nurses told they can break rules during outbreak

‘We recognise that in highly challenging circumstances, professionals may need to depart from established procedures in order to care for patients,’ regulators say

This is an edited version of an article first published by the Independent.

Doctors, nurses and other clinical staff will be allowed to break normal rules on patient treatment during the coronavirus outbreak, professional regulators have said.

This would cover actions taken by doctors and nurses that are outside of normal procedures and include coping with a lack of staff, testing patients in car parks, and taking decisions to delay patients who would normally be admitted from coming into hospital.

In a joint statement, the General Medical Council, Nursing and Midwifery Council and 10 other regulators said they recognised “that in highly challenging circumstances professionals may need to depart from established procedures”.

It is an attempt to reassure NHS staff that if they are forced to breach normal rules to cope with the impact of coronavirus on the NHS they will not get into trouble with their regulator.

The statement did not explicitly state what the watchdogs meant by established procedures but the Nursing and Midwifery Council, which regulates the UK’s 700,000 nursing staff,  said it was aiming to recognise staff may be forced to “act outside normal employer processes”.

A spokesperson said: “An example at the moment is that people are being tested for the coronavirus in pods in car parks. That is outside normal processes but clearly something that is happening. Or, as outlined in the government action plan, should services become more widely affected, a different approach to admissions may be taken and non-urgent care may be delayed.”

The General Medical Council declined to give an example of procedures doctors might be sanctioned to skip or change.

The statement said staff needed to use “their professional judgement” adding: “We recognise that in highly challenging circumstances, professionals may need to depart from established procedures in order to care for patients and people using health and social care services. Our regulatory standards are designed to be flexible and to provide a framework for decision-making in a wide range of situations.

“We recognise that the individuals on our registers may feel anxious about how context is taken into account when concerns are raised about their decisions and actions in very challenging circumstances. Where a concern is raised about a registered professional, it will always be considered on the specific facts of the case, taking into account the factors relevant to the environment in which the professional is working. We would also take account of any relevant information about resource, guidelines or protocols in place at the time.”

The regulators said they may issue specific guidance in coming weeks as the coronavirus situation develops.

Separately, the Care Quality Commission said it would take a “‘pragmatic approach” to inspecting hospitals during a coronavirus outbreak and could decide to postpone some hospital visits.

The watchdog said it would try to reduce the demands it makes on hospitals for information.

NHS England has declared a national incident to coordinate the NHS response to the virus.

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