Ministers have asked medical examiners in England and Wales to review the deaths of NHS and social care employees during the pandemic to determine whether the infection was caught as a result of their work.
The Independent has reported that an investigation began last month, covering around 620 deaths of nurses, doctors and care home staff since the beginning of March.
The review could trigger a number of investigations by hospitals, the Health and Safety Executive and coroners into whether staff received sufficient protective equipment. Early into the pandemic there were numerous reports of hospitals running out of protective masks and clothing.
In April, health secretary Matt Hancock announced that families of health and care workers who died from the virus as a result of their duties would receive a death in service benefit of £60,000.
Medical examiners will independently review all relevant deaths to verify the correct cause and identify any concerns around treatment. They will be asked to indicate whether the worker was tested for Covid-19 and the result was recorded, and whether there is reason to believe the infection was acquired in the course employment.
If so, hospitals have a duty to report this to the Health and Safety Executive (according to Riddor (reporting of injuries, diseases and dangerous occurrences regulations)). The HSE could then investigate. Certain cases may be passed on to a coroner.
Medical examiners are employed by local trusts and are accountable to a national medical examiner. They were introduced after the public inquiry into serial killer GP Harold Shipman.
An NHS England spokesperson told The Independent: “NHS and other care staff have gone to extraordinary lengths to treat people during the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s absolutely right that we seek to understand the circumstances of every death, which is why all NHS employers will work with the Health and Safety Executive, as well as local and regional medical examiners, to ensure any lessons are learned to protect frontline staff.”
Doctors’ Association UK, which represents doctors, has campaigned for a public inquiry into the deaths of NHS workers during the coronavirus pandemic. It welcomed the reviews into the deaths but said they could go further.
Dr Rinesh Parmar, its chair, said: “It’s a positive step that the government is recognising these deaths need investigation, but we would ask that they take the next step with a full coroner’s investigation into all health worker deaths.
“Coroners are best placed to carry out independent investigations. They have the experience and they are not directly employed by hospital trusts so there is less of a chance of them being persuaded to make certain decisions or recommendations.”