Doctors use European law to take government to court over lack of PPE during coronavirus outbreak

Health Secretary Matt Hancock arrives at Downing Street. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock arrives at Downing Street. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire. - Credit: PA

Doctors and campaigners have launched a High Court challenge against the government over its refusal to hold an urgent public inquiry into PPE shortages.

A claim for judicial review has been lodged with the court by the Doctors' Association UK, Hourglass - a charity which works to prevent abuse and neglect of older people - and legal pressure group the Good Law Project.

They argue health secretary Matt Hancock's refusal to commit to an enhanced investigation into whether failings in procurement, stockpiling, distribution and provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) may have contributed to the deaths or serious illnesses of NHS and care home staff and patients from Covid-19 is unlawful.

The group, which is crowdfunding its case, says an inquiry which complies with Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the right to life, should be automatic and is required in circumstances where those deaths and illnesses have been 'caused or contributed to' by the state.

They also say such an investigation must take place 'as soon as reasonably practicable' because there is an 'urgent need to gather evidence and learn lessons' now, ahead of a possible second or third spike of infection.

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In documents filed with the court, Paul Bowen QC, representing the group, said: 'In the particular context of this case, there is an urgent need to address the underlying reasons for the apparent failures to procure, stockpile, distribute and supply adequate PPE (both before and during the pandemic) that have led to the current shortage.

'That urgency arises, in part, from the need to learn lessons from any previous failures, in light of the possibility that a second or third wave of the pandemic may follow.'

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The group claims in the documents that there have been at least 181 deaths of NHS staff and 131 deaths of social care workers in England, as of May 20.

Dr Rinesh Parmar, chairman of the Doctors' Association UK, said: 'We have seen over the last few weeks that the UK has one of the highest death rates from Covid-19 in the world.

'Health and social care workers rose to the challenge, returned to the frontline from retirement and pulled out all the stops to save lives.

'Some had no PPE, others had inadequate, out of date perishing supplies.

'Alongside caring for patients, we've cared for colleagues and also faced the sad and grim reality of losing colleagues, who themselves were caring for patients.

'As we recover from the first wave of Covid-19 there is a real and credible possibility that we will face a second wave in the coming months or into the winter.

'Now is the time to learn key lessons to enable us to avoid future pitfalls, protect the frontline and ultimately save lives.

'Our calls for a public inquiry and our petition of nearly 120,000 signatures have all fallen on deaf ears as the Government buries its head in the sand and steadfastly refuses to commit to the learning required to prevent further tragedies.'

Government lawyers wrote that there is 'no arguable case' that the health secretary has breached Article 2 and that there are existing mechanisms - such as medical examinations and inquests - to investigate deaths from Covid-19.

The letter said: 'In the context of a national emergency and pandemic of this kind, there are many ways in which the government is properly held to account, including in parliament.

'Under the scheme of Article 2, in relation to issues of the kind you raise, government properly would have a wide discretion as to the form or forms of any investigation into systemic and national issues.

'The same applies in relation to timing - especially in circumstances in which the government is working flat out to manage all of the issues which the pandemic has thrown up and no-one needs any persuasion as to the ongoing importance of seeking to secure that all those who need it have the right PPE.'

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