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BMA to seek legal advice on doctors refusing to work due to understaffing

The BMA is to obtain legal advice about whether doctors can refuse to work if they cannot guarantee patient safety due to system failures, including understaffing.

At the BMA’s annual representative meeting in Belfast today, delegates passed a motion with an outstanding majority, voting in favour of seeking legal opinion.

The motion called for clarification on the legal and contracted ramifications – as well as GMC registration – if a doctor refuses to work due to system failures which include clinical understaffing, IT failure and lack of support staff.

Dr James Murphy from BMA’s South Central branch, who introduced the motion, said: ‘Why on earth are we expected to work in hospitals and GP surgeries when it is clearly no longer safe for us or our patients.

‘When acute system failures strike, doctors today face a horrible Hobson’s choice. We either refuse to work and face the GMC investigation or NHS sanctions for breach of contract. The other option is to battle on, do our best that if patients do come to harm, that we will be judged in the context of the wider system pressure prevalent at the time.’

He added: ‘We know how Dr Bawa-Garba was judged in just this sort of acute situation. We know what happened to her. If Dr Bawa-Garba’s suffering is not to be in vain, we must learn the lessons of her experience and work to find new ways to protect our members from being forced against their better judgement with a bayonet to their backs to do the equivalent to captaining a plane with only one wing.’

It follows the news that GMC chief executive Charlie Massey admitted the legal advice the regulator received during the Dr Hadiza Bawa Garba Case was wrong and that if the same thing occurred now, he would not try to have a doctor barred from practice.

Dr Gordon Matthews, an orthopedic surgeon in favour of the motion, called for clarity so doctors can make informed decisions.

He said: ‘In these circumstances do we battle on and rely on our resilience or do we call time and say we just can’t go on? In an acute situation, this is very difficult and it will have possible serious repercussions.

‘I believe that clear guidance from the BMA would be very helpful to each and every one of us so we understand the consequences of our actions in the difficult situations in which we work.’

The motion comes after a recent independent review of gross negligence, manslaughter and culpable homicide – commissioned by the GMC – found that the regulator should take ‘immediate steps’ to rebuild doctors’ trust after relations were damaged in the Bawa-Garba case.

The latest NHS Digital figures showed that the number of fully-qualified GPs in England had fallen by 441 over the past year, despite promises by the Prime Minister to recruit 5,000 extra GPs ‘as soon as possible’.

At its annual representative meeting, the BMA has also voted to consult its members on its assisted dying stance and warned that the NHS long term plan could lead to privatisation

Motion passed in full


That this meeting instructs council to obtain legal opinion clarifying the legal, GMC and contractual position of a doctor refusing to work knowing that they cannot guarantee patient safety due to system failure such as (but not limited to) significant clinical understaffing, IT failure, lack of support staff and to clarify the legal and GMC position if a doctor does work in these circumstances.