Ministers have been accused of trying to cover up the findings from investigations into hundreds of health and social care worker deaths linked to coronavirus after it emerged the results will not be made public.
The Independent revealed on Tuesday that medical examiners across England and Wales have been asked by ministers to investigate more than 620 deaths of frontline staff that occurred during the pandemic.
The senior doctors will review the circumstances and medical cause of death in each case and attempt to determine whether the worker may have caught the virus during the course of their duties.
But now the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said the results will be kept secret with the aim of helping local hospitals to learn and improve protection for staff.
It has sparked criticism from across the political spectrum with both Labour and the Liberal Democrats calling for more transparency and warning against a “cover up” of any findings.
Separately, trade unions and NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, have urged the government to ensure full investigations into every death and to be transparent about findings to reassure health and social care staff ahead of any second wave.
Sir Ed Davey, acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: “We currently have one of the highest number of deaths of health and care workers in Europe. The government has utterly failed to protect staff in both hospitals and care homes. The fact that now they are trying to cover up how and why each tragic death occurs is a disgrace.
“This is yet more reason for an immediate independent inquiry into the coronavirus crisis.”
Justin Madders, Labour’s shadow health minister, said: “With the UK having the highest number of Covid-19 healthcare worker deaths in the world, it is important that any investigation is fully transparent.
“Accountability should be at the forefront of any investigation. The government owe it to the families of those who have lost loved ones in the line of duty to be totally honest with them about what has happened and to demonstrate that lessons have been learnt. They cannot be allowed to sweep this under the carpet.”
Where a medical examiner finds a worker may have died as a result of catching the virus at work it will trigger a report from the trust to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) – which could carry out its own investigation into how the hospital was ensuring staff were protected.
The deaths will also be referred to coroners who could also carry out their own investigations.
Medical examiners will be required to consult the families of workers who have died and consider any concerns they raise.
The Department of Health and Social Care said the safety of staff was “paramount” adding: “Employers already have a legal duty to report to the Health and Safety Executive the deaths of staff who die as a result of exposure to coronavirus from their work. Medical examiners will not decide which deaths are reported to HSE, but will help ensure none are missed.”
National medical examiner, Dr Alan Fletcher, a consultant in emergency medicine, will receive a summary of each case and review the findings.
But the DHSC said the process was aimed at supporting local learning and the findings would not be made public.
Miriam Deakin, director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, urged openness from the government saying: “As far as possible we would support a transparent approach to help ensure staff can be confident as they go about their work treating and caring for patients.”
She added: “We welcome any investigation that teaches us more about the impact of the virus, which has claimed the lives of so many colleagues and friends.
“Safety of patients and staff is absolute priority, so it’s important that where there are lessons, they can be shared and applied.
“It’s important to acknowledge the incredibly difficult challenges trusts faced in working to protect staff and patients. An exercise in blame helps no one.”
The leader of the British Medical Association (BMA), Dr Chaand Nagpaul, told The Independent the families of those who had died deserved answers.
He said: “The BMA has campaigned long and hard on the woeful PPE supply issues during the pandemic, and if this, or any other factor in their working environment led to the deaths of doctors or their colleagues this needs to be made public. This is the only way we will ensure lessons are learnt and actions are taken to protect the lives of healthcare workers. Both families left behind, and colleagues who continue to fight the pandemic on the frontline deserve nothing less.”
Unison’s deputy head of health, Helga Pile, said: “Every life lost to Covid-19 of a care or NHS worker is one too many.
“It’s clear more action is needed to keep staff safe. Unions have already raised concerns that employers are under-reporting deaths and illnesses related to Covid-19.
“The hope is this review will put that right and ensure lessons are learnt.”
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) said the loss of life among NHS staff during the pandemic was “heart-breaking”.
Kim Sunley, from the RCN added: “Every death is a tragedy. There must be proper investigation of each and every death, and a clear understanding of the circumstances, especially the role of workplace exposure, if healthcare workers are to be protected in the future.”
Dr Rinesh Parmar, chair of the Doctors’ Association UK, said: “The families of our colleagues who have died deserve to know what happened, the circumstances surrounding the death and whether a lack of adequate PPE led to the deaths of loved ones. Learning needs to be widely shared in an NHS where we learn not blame, where we improve and prevent future tragedies and safeguard staff and patients alike. This is simply not possible if the findings are buried rather than published openly.”
A decision by a medical examiner that the death was linked to their work could help families access a £60,000 lump sum compensation scheme made available by the government.
The DHSC confirmed the medical examiner reports could be used to help the decisions to be made.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson rejected the suggestion it was covering up the results adding: “The safety of NHS and social care staff is paramount and medical examiner reviews provide an opportunity for learning, reflection and improvement across the health and social care system.
“A summary of every case is received by the national medical examiner, who reviews findings and ensures employers are contacted if deemed necessary. We are monitoring progress of the medical examiners’ scrutiny, and consideration will be given to whether further steps should be taken in due course.”