Police Bill amended to protect medical confidentiality

by Tim Tonkin

Measures to protect patient confidentiality in new legislation on crime and policing have been upheld after lobbying by the BMA

Location: UK
Last reviewed: 14 December 2021

Measures aimed at protecting patient confidentiality have been upheld in new legislation on crime and policing, as the Government brought forward amendments to its own Bill following persistent lobbying efforts by the BMA.

A set of Government amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill in the House of Lords were passed by peers, confirming the Government’s commitment that the current rules about medical confidentiality will continue to apply where a patient is subject to police enquiries.

The changes made to the Bill are the result of coordinated lobbying by the BMA, GMC (General Medical Council) and National Data Guardian. The three organisations worked together alongside peers to raise concerns that the original wording of the Bill allowed for permissive and blanket powers overriding long-standing provisions protecting patient confidentiality.

The decision means that patients’ ability to share information about their health in confidence with their doctor will continue to be protected under existing common law requirements.

Welcoming the decision, BMA medical ethics committee chair John Chisholm said it represented a clear victory for patients and health professionals.

He said: ‘The Government’s decision to amend the Bill is a great outcome for the BMA. Having presented our concerns to officials from the beginning of the Lords’ scrutiny, we worked closely with peers, the National Data Guardian and the GMC to impress upon the minister the importance of removing powers in the Bill that would override medical confidentiality.

‘The minister was left in no doubt that we could not support a blanket legal requirement for confidential health information to be shared with the police, and heeded our argument that anonymous data could deliver the Bill’s ambition to reduce serious violence instead. With the Government’s amendments to the Bill, we can now be assured that confidential health information – whether clinical or demographic – will remain protected and unchanged by this Bill, and that the potential dire consequences of the unamended Bill for public trust in the NHS and in healthcare professionals have been avoided.

‘This is a fantastic example of the work our expert staff do for us and, on behalf of all BMA members, I would like to thank Sophie Brannan, from the ethics team, and Holly Weldin, from public affairs, for the huge amount of work they have put into this and for their ongoing work to protect medical confidentiality so as to allow us to provide the best possible care to our patients.’

Patients’ trust at risk

The association, along with the GMC and National Data Guardian, had raised concerns that the original format of the Bill would place a legal requirement on all clinical commissioning groups and local health boards to share confidential patient information with the police, as well as additional powers to bring forward regulations for sharing this information with a wider list of recipients like councils and educational authorities.

In briefings throughout the Lords’ debates on the Bill, the association made clear that sweeping powers outlined in the original draft were not necessary to the Government’s aim, and legal requirements to share patients’ confidential information with the police as a matter of routine would be wholly inappropriate.

The BMA emphasised that such a move would have a ‘highly damaging impact’ on patients’ ability to trust their doctor and consequently their willingness to discuss issues relating to their health or seek medical treatment.

While emphasising its support for efforts to detect or prevent crime, the association made clear that it was already possible to share confidential data on a case-by-case basis when it was necessary to prevent or detect serious crime, and that any blanket removal of medical confidentiality duties was excessive and unnecessary.