Your right to work safely

by Dr Helena Mckeown

Responding to reports received from doctors being pressured to act unsafely in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, BMA representative body chair, Helena McKeown highlights what support and guidance is available from the BMA.

Location: UK
Published: Thursday 2 April 2020
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In the midst of this crisis, doctors across the country put themselves at risk on a daily basis. We are doing so readily. We chose careers in medicine because we wanted to provide care to patients who need it: because, in times of challenge, our instinct is to be of service and not to sit on the sidelines.

However, there is a limit to the level of risk which any doctor should be expected to absorb or expose themselves to at any time, and it is deeply wrong and counterproductive for NHS managers to attempt to coerce a physician into endangering their own health as well as that of their patients and families.

At the BMA, we have heard reports of senior hospital and clinical commissioning group managers instructing frontline doctors to ignore Public Health England advice and treat COVID-19 patients in spite of not having being given access to the PPE (personal protective equipment) they require to do so safely.

We’ve also heard from BMA members who have been told to remove masks, scrubs and other items of protective equipment which they need to feel safe so as to avoid alarming their colleagues, who have been strong-armed into working additional shifts which are incompatible with their childcare requirements, and who have been yelled at, treated dismissively or silenced upon raising safety concerns related to PPE.

Even in the present circumstances, doctors are under no binding obligation to provide high-risk services where their employer doesn’t supply them with sufficient and appropriate protection.

If you haven’t been provided with masks, gowns, gloves and aprons – or the protective equipment which your employer has made available to you is inadequate – you should raise this matter urgently with your managers.

If they don’t resolve this issue and instead attempt to pressure you into treating patients in a way which jeopardises your own health and increases the likelihood that you will inadvertently spread the virus, then the BMA is on hand to help. BMA members can access workplace support from our team of expert employment advisers six days a week. You can contact them by phone (0300 123 1233), email or via webchat.

You can also share your concerns or issues with us via our online portal. This simple tool enables doctors to feed their experiences of the COVID-19 crisis directly into the BMA’s work lobbying ministers and senior government and NHS officials on our members’ behalves and raising public awareness of the challenges doctors face as we seek to combat this pandemic. You can either do so anonymously or share your email address with us if you are open to further discussion.

In addition, abusive and undermining behaviour had no place in the NHS before this pandemic began and has no place in the NHS now. The BMA has previously published guidance on what constitutes bullying and harassment, what to do if you are being bullied and what to do if you witness it; as well as important research on the prevalence of these behaviours in the NHS and how they can be stamped out.

Talking things through with a trusted colleague or adviser can be an important step towards gaining clarity about the manner in which you have been treated and how to respond to an instance of workplace bullying.

Our counselling and peer support services are available to support any and all doctors and medical students – as well as their spouses, partners and children – 24/7, confidentially and free of charge.

All NHS staff deserve the right PPE and to be treated fairly and with dignity. No doctor should be bullied into putting their own life at risk. If your employer is attempting to coerce you into acting unsafely, let the BMA know – we will stand with you.

Helena Mckeown is BMA representative body chair