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‘My GMC suspension won’t stop me blowing the whistle on climate change’

‘My GMC suspension won’t stop me blowing the whistle on climate change’

Dr Sarah Benn, a retired GP in Birmingham, writes about her suspension by a tribunal this week for taking part in peaceful climate change protests

This week, the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service determined that I should be suspended from the medical register for five months. Panel members agreed with the GMC that my fitness to practise was impaired by misconduct so serious as to be likely to damage public trust in the profession. Five months would give me opportunity to reflect, and develop insight into the importance of complying with the law, and the effects of my conduct on public trust in doctors. There was no concern over my 32 years of medical practice before I retired from clinical work in 2022.

I have been reflecting on matters of trust and duty since 2019, my first foray into nonviolent direct action in the context of the climate emergency. My position remains unchanged. I see a compelling duty to raise the alarm and force action over the biggest threat to human life and health ever faced.

Agreed, I have broken the law: in the events being addressed by tribunal, a civil injunction prohibiting protest at an oil terminal. This law, designed to protect the interests of an industry profiting obscenely while destroying our biosphere, meant me spending 32 days in prison for contempt of court. How so? I stood with a placard on the grass verge of a public road, and sat down with a banner in the private entry road to the terminal until arrested by police.

Scientists are united in consensus that we are in an accelerating climate emergency. The trajectory is alarming, and we are possibly already above the 1.5’C maximal temperature rise we must strive towards to secure a liveable future. My placard stated ‘Stop New Oil’ because we have no chance of pulling back without stopping burning fossil fuels – not overnight, but certainly by 2030. Nothing in the current response to the climate emergency suggests to me that our government and institutions are acting with the urgency required to avert disaster.

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Our Government rows back on climate promises and actively augments the harm with policies such as that to ‘max out’ North Sea oil and gas production.

I was asked recently to describe our planet’s health status, as if it were my patient. We medics are all taught about the fit patient who sustains a serious and continuing insult – think acute blood loss, or the early stages of sepsis. Blood pressure is reasonable, they walk and talk, and just look a tad pale and clammy. Yet they are physiologically compensating at maximal capacity, until everything crashes, and they are moribund. The wise doctor recognises the creeping tachycardia, the insidious rash, acting swiftly and decisively with emergency resuscitative measures …fluids, oxygen, and critically, by stopping the harm- arresting the haemorrhage, administering antibiotics to target bacteria.

Earth is such a patient. It draws on immense capacity to absorb humanity’s destructive onslaughts without showing loss in function to the casual observe r- unless of course they live in parts of the world at the sharp end of climate change, predominantly the global South who have done least to cause this problem. However the signs of decompensation are unmistakable, tipping points are close, or even breached.

I am blowing a whistle, and I won’t stop. Public trust and the reputation of the profession will be eroded more by the failure of those who could use their position of privilege to effect, but choose not to, than by doctors who do their best, at personal cost, to protect life. The GMC recently apologised to homosexual doctors struck off for breaking the law and bringing the profession into disrepute. I’m not holding my breath for an apology, and I really don’t want sympathy. I just want our medical institutions to show some leadership and moral courage, and act a bit more effectively than introducing low energy lightbulbs and reusable coffee cups.

There will be no net zero targets, no GMC, no tribunal service, and no medicine on a dead planet.

Dr Sarah Benn is a retired GP in Birmingham



Please note, only GPs are permitted to add comments to articles

So the bird flew away 24 April, 2024 6:07 pm

Dr Benn, for your persistent courage in the face of wicked new legislation and GMC stupidity, you have my deep respect. You will be on the right side of history.
As a doctor who likes to understand the issues, exceptional books by Naomi Klein, E O Wilson, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Elizabeth Kolbert and many others have definitely helped me in that.

John Graham Munro 24 April, 2024 8:43 pm

I was hauled up before the G.M.C. some time back. It was a tortuous experience. Their conclusion was that my attitude throughout had been ”contemptuous and offensive”———————–job done!

Some Bloke 24 April, 2024 10:16 pm

What whistle?… Why does anyone need to hear your whistle? Please stop this obsession with your uniquely important role in planetary matters

Liquorice Root- Bitter and Twisted. 25 April, 2024 7:05 am

Being tried and punished twice for the same offense is surely against natural justice?

David Banner 25 April, 2024 8:33 am

Presumably these protesters care passionately about their cause and want to persuade the public and government to take meaningful action on Climate Change.

If so, why on earth do they persist in indulging in disruptive activities that have the polar opposite effect?

Their strategy is that all publicity is good publicity, so that when the media arrive at their latest stunt they can use the platform to proselytise about their cause. (Dr Benn was given a column in Pulse…..success!!).

But unfortunately the watching public does not see brave heroes fighting the multinational fuel industry and enlightening them to join the struggle.
Instead they see privileged narcissists trapped in a Doomsday Cult disrupting ordinary working people’s lives.
Look at the cheers received by drivers bold enough to do the police’s job by dragging these misguided protesters off the road.

These stunts are alienating the very people you need to reach, and when the public see the eccentric behaviour of activists they dismiss them as fruitcakes.

If you’re really in a battle to save the planet, then maybe you should reconsider your tactics.

John Glasspool 25 April, 2024 9:45 am

I don’t agree with “just stop oil”. But anyone who pisses of the GMC has my respect

Darren Tymens 25 April, 2024 11:12 am

I think there are a number of issues here and it is important not to get them confused.
First there is the issue of whether you do or do not agree with the cause of her undertaking non-violent protest action. For the record, I think it a worthwhile cause. But this isn’t really relevant, because it isn’t what the GMC/MPTS opinion is about.
Second there is the issue of her actions herself. From what I read in the press, they were disruptive but non-violent and caused no damage. This is often how protest works – the disruption is the point. Violence is not acceptable, nor is damage (please stop destroying art) – but this is not the case here. Bear in mind we as a profession are also about to consider engaging in a form of non-violent civil protest in the form or strike action.
The *real* point is whether the GMC should have waded in and punished her so severely, or even at all, for private opinions and non-violent actions that have nothing to do with medical care.
If she broke a civil law, she will (and has been) punished for it according to the law.
Why is it also a matter for the GMC? She is entitled to her own political opinions, surely? Nothing she has done in any way suggests she is a risk to patients. I don’t believe that a doctor taking part in non-violent political protest in any way compromises the care she offers, or indeed brings the profession into disrepute.
The panel’s decision continues the worrying trend of the GMC straying too far into regulating the private actions and opinions of doctors. They should reverse this decision, and make a statement that in future they will only act in matters impacting patient care, and will restrict the definition of ‘bringing the profession into disrepute’ to allow for peaceful protest (even if by doing so misdemeanours entirely unrelated to medical practice are commmitted).
No wonder the BMA have stated they have no confidence in the GMC.

Marilyn Monroe 25 April, 2024 11:50 am

Totally agree with Darren Tymens.

Decorum Est 25 April, 2024 11:53 am

‘Panel members agreed with the GMC that my fitness to practise was impaired by misconduct so serious as to be likely to damage public trust in the profession.’

Maybe the panel members were accurately reflecting on their own and the GMC’s disgraceful inadequacies?

Clare Sieber 25 April, 2024 6:42 pm

But one of the panel members IS the BMA – the dep chair of GPC England. Isn’t that a bit… conflicty?

Keith M Laycock 25 April, 2024 8:05 pm

Another ‘Agreement’ with Darren Tymens

Dr No 25 April, 2024 10:31 pm

Sarah Benn, Trudi Warner, many others, – speaking truth to mindless authority. Annoying the stick-in-the-muds should be a badge of honour, not sanction. Makes me wonder who is pulling the strings at the GMC. I wonder if I’ll get the chance to ask them? Maybe not been trying hard enough as yet…

Sylvia Okoye 27 April, 2024 2:41 pm

Never thought I’d hear myself say this; but I’m with the GMC on this one. They’ve made it clear this has nothing to do with the right to non violent protest, or even whether they agree with the cause or tactics. I agree that a Dr who repeatedly breaks the law (even after serving a custodial sentence) brings the profession into disrepute regardless of whether we agree with the law or not. We as a profession are considering embarking on strike action-a form for non violent protest. We aim to cause some disruption but we will not be breaking the law. I’m sure most doctors will draw the line at that. Dr Benn has retired from clinical practice. Why doesn’t she remove herself voluntarily from the register, which frees her to protest to her heart’s desire and only suffer the civil consequences.