UK health watchdog may investigate coronavirus deaths

The deaths of more than 50 hospital and care home workers have been reported to Britain’s health and safety regulator, which is considering launching criminal investigations, the Guardian has learned.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which investigates the breaking of safety at work laws, has received 54 formal reports of deaths in health and care settings “where the source of infection is recorded as Covid-19”. These are via the official reporting process, called Riddor: Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences.

Separately, senior lawyers say any failures to provide proper personal protective equipment (PPE) may be so severe they amount to corporate manslaughter, with police forces drawing up plans to handle any criminal complaints.

Despite weeks of pleading, frontline medical staff complain that PPE is still failing to reach them as hospitals battle the highly contagious virus. Senior barristers say criminal investigations should be launched, and that there are grounds to suspect high-level failures.

Nazir Afzal, former chief crown prosecutor for north-west England, said: “Sending someone into a high-risk situation against one of the most infectious diseases we’ve come across in 100 years without proper protection needs a proper investigation and may meet the threshold for criminal sanction.

“In due course there ought to be an investigation by either the HSE or police to identify whether the lack of PPE has caused somebody’s death.”

Public authorities are not exempt from duties of care to their employees even when responding to emergencies. A key issue will be whether organisational and management failures contributed to those deaths.

Alex Bailin QC, an expert in laws concerning corporate manslaughter, said NHS trusts and the Department of Health, as well as any other government departments involved in crucial decision-making, could be considered criminal suspects.

“Medics and other carers are doing the job with inadequate equipment, and undoubtedly some of them will have contracted it from highly infectious patients, and died. Those deaths were avoidable with proper PPE,” he said. “Had there not been organisational and management failures, those deaths could have been avoided, and that could be corporate manslaughter.

“Legally, there may well be enough for the police to open a criminal investigation, even if there is not the appetite do so in the current crisis. There is reason to suspect serious high-level failures.”

He added that there was ample warning of the need for PPE. “From an early point it was clear a lot of PPE was needed. It was not ordered, it could have been ordered – so frontline workers were placed in an impossible situation; to treat dying patients without adequate protection, and risk their own lives, or not to treat them at all.”

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