An interesting article appeared this week in ‘The Guardian’ newspaper concerning patients in English hospitals since March 2020 who had caught Covid 19 whilst being treated for another medical problem.
In other words, they had been admitted Covid free, but acquired the disease whilst patients. It reminded me in many ways of the furore that arose over MRSA Infections in hospitals many years ago that led to a number of clinical negligence claims being brought. It also cast my mind back to the early days of the pandemic when the Government was concerned that patients were avoiding going to hospital to be treated for fear that they would acquire Covid 19 whilst there. Indeed, a member of my own family was in such a frame of mind. At the time, it seemed an illogical position to take,but, having read the Guardian’s article, the fears would seem to have some basis.
The Guardian obtained the figures under the Freedom of Information Act and the results were quite startling. Official NHS Data revealed that 32,307 people had contracted the virus while in hospital in England for a non-Covid related problem, of whom, sadly, up to 8,700 patients had died. Relatives of those involved described the details as “horrifying”, with the former Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, himself saying that Hospital Acquired Covid “remained one of the silent scandals of the pandemic, causing many thousands of avoidable deaths.”
University Hospitals Birmingham, was the highest in terms of numbers of deaths at 408, followed by Nottingham University (279) and Frimley Health (259). The picture is far from complete though as 45 English Trusts refused entirely to disclose their death figures, despite it being pointed out they had a legal obligation to do so under the Freedom of Information Act. The message is fairly clear, however - Hospital Acquired Covid deaths potentially have involved a loss of life that was avoidable. The reasons for hospital infections appear to be multi-factorial. Austerity has been blamed with a number of hospitals having too few single rooms to isolate the infected. Trusts had little scope to test their staff and too little personal protective equipment, especially during the early stages of the pandemic. Other reasons include inadequate ventilation, sharing of equipment and nurses and doctors gathering at nurses stations and in doctor’s messes, perhaps not entirely observing social distancing. Some bereaved relatives indicated that hospitals had decided to put ‘Covid-Free’ relatives in a bay or ward with one or more people who had the disease. This was described as “inexplicable” and, if correct, arguably a decision that would take some defending.
The Guardian article was certainly a sobering read but the true extent of the problem may, in fact, be greater. All of this will no doubt be scrutinised in significant detail in the inevitable Enquiry that will be set up once the pandemic is declared over.
It remains to be seen if patients who suffered ‘hospital acquired Covid’ pursue legal action against the NHS and in particular whether Unions or After the Event insurers will be prepared to back such claims given the unprecedented context in which they arose. Given the public support for the NHS and its heroic staff for whom we clapped on Thursday nights, there may be little appetite for litigation. If claims are brought, they will not be straightforward - the (already stretched) NHS faced huge challenges managing patient numbers during the waves of the pandemic., compounded by a reduction in medical staff due to them being unwell or having to self-isolate. The Courts may take the view that, in the prevailing circumstances at the time, the NHS discharged its duty to take reasonable care of patients. However, there is no doubt that practitioners in this area of law are watching this space very carefully.
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