Exclusive The GMC will only make fitness-to-practise information requests to doctors during the coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis if there is ‘an immediate patient safety concern’.
The GMC told Pulse this comes as it appreciates the pressure doctors are currently under and therefore wants to ‘limit the impact’ of complaints and investigations.
Meanwhile, NHS England said it will be supporting a ‘system-wide pause’ on the NHS complaints process, including the suspension of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman complaints process for at least three months.
The GMC will continue its casework during the crisis but will only consider any new referrals or complaints, and any new information on existing cases, in order to determine whether there are any immediate public safety concerns.
It will also continue work on interim order applications and review hearings; substantive order review hearings; and relevant court interim order extension applications.
The Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS) has postponed most tribunal hearings. The GMC said this was in a bid to ensure the safety of all involved and stem the potential spread of infection.
But it added that the MPTS would continue to review existing sanctions and consider new interim restrictions where necessary to protect patients or public confidence.
Where hearings do take place, they will be via video conference or considered by a ‘legally qualified chair’.
Anthony Omo, general counsel and director of FTP for the GMC, said: ‘We appreciate the pressure on doctors and the UK’s health services and want to limit the impact of complaints and investigations.
‘We’re continuing to assess and respond to concerns received, but we are changing how we seek information from employers and doctors. We will only make a request if it involves an immediate patient safety concern. This means that we may not be able to progress some cases as efficiently as we would normally, or at all, for the time being.
‘If this happens, we’ll communicate with those involved and support them as best we can. Any doctor currently involved in a fitness to practise case can get in touch with us about their individual case.’
NHS England said in a bulletin to practices (28 March): ‘Due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic we are supporting a system wide “pause” of the NHS complaints process which will allow all health care providers in all sectors to concentrate their efforts on the front-line duties and responsiveness to Covid-19.
‘The initial “pause” period is recommended to be for three months with immediate effect. All health care providers can opt to operate as usual regarding the management of complaints if they wish to do so and this “pause” is not being enforced.
‘Please note that as of 26 March 2020, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman has stopped accepting new NHS complaints and has stopped work on open cases.’
The GMC has already moved to reassure doctors that they will take the ‘challenging circumstances’ into account when investigating coronavirus-related complaints.
It has also announced that it will defer revalidation for GPs to ‘free up vital time’ on the coronavirus ‘frontline’.
GMC chair Dame Clare Marx wrote in a comment piece for Pulse last week that the GMC ‘understand[s] the burden [GPs] are shouldering’.