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Chief Coroner’s guidance on Covid-19 deaths and possible exposure in the workplace

The Chief Coroner of England and Wales has provided further guidance regarding the Covid-19 pandemic.

When must a death related to Covid-19 be reported to the Coroner?

The guidance states that the vast majority of deaths from Covid-19 are due to the natural progression of a naturally occurring disease and so will not be referred to the Coroner.  The Coroner has referred to the Ministry of Justice Guidance on the Notification of Deaths Regulations 2019 which states:

“24.      A death is typically considered to be unnatural if it has not resulted entirely from  a naturally occurring disease process running its natural course where nothing else is implicated”.

Death due to Covid-19 is considered as notifiable under the Health Protection (Notification) Regulations 2010 meaning that any death resulting from the disease must be notified to Public Health England.  The death may also sometimes be notifiable to the Health & Safety Executive under RIDDOR where any person has died as a result of occupational exposure to the virus which causes the Covid-19 disease.  The HSE has published guidance that death as a result of work related exposure to the virus must be subject to the reporting procedures.

Regulation 3(1)(a)  of the Notification of Deaths Regulations 2019 provides that there must be a report to the Coroner where the medical practitioner completing the Death Certificate suspects that  the death was due to an injury or disease  attributable to any employment held during the Deceased’s lifetime.

There are therefore some instances in which a Covid-19 death may be reported to the Coroner, for example, where the virus may have been contracted in the workplace setting.  This may include frontline NHS staff as well as others, for example public transport employees, care home workers and emergency services personnel.

Will the Coroner have to open an investigation?

The guidance states that if the medical cause of death is Covid-19 and there is no reason to suspect that any culpable human failure contributed to the particular death there will usually be no requirement for the Coroner to open an investigation.

Equally, if there was reason to suspect that some human failure contributed to the person being infected with the virus, an investigation and inquest may be required.  If the Coroner decides to open an investigation then they may need to consider whether any failures or precautions in a particular workplace caused the deceased to contract the virus and, if so, contributed to death.  Also, if there were reason to suspect that some failure of clinical care of a patient in their final illness contributed to death it may be necessary to have an inquest and consider the clinical care provided.  If a person died in state detention then an inquest would have to take place.

The Chief Coroner indicates that that an inquest would likely not be a satisfactory means of deciding whether adequate general policies or arrangements were in place for provision of PPE to health care workers in the country or part of it.

Timescales for enquiries and inquests

The guidance reminds Coroners to be sensitive when pursuing enquiries with hospitals and clinicians due to the additional demands upon them during this period.  They should also be mindful that it may be in the best interests of the bereaved family to proceed with the investigation and inquest in a prompt and timely way.  Coroners will need to consider the facts and circumstances of each individual case.

For further information, please get in touch.

Please note that this briefing is designed to be informative, not advisory and represents our understanding of English law and practice as at the date indicated. We would always recommend that you should seek specific guidance on any particular legal issue.

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