• Only a proportion of known deaths have been reported
  • Trusts which don’t report could be fined
  • Coroners unlikely to look at widespread PPE issues

More than 50 covid-related deaths of health and social care workers have been reported to the Health and Safety Executive, which will examine them.

Up to 3 May, the HSE had received 56 fatal disease reports involving covid-19 in England, Wales and Scotland – all but two of these related to health or social care settings, the organisation told HSJ. Of these, at least 16 are understood to relate to care homes – leaving a maximum of 38 healthcare worker deaths which have been reported at this stage.

The reports were all made under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR) which require notification of a death to HSE within 10 days. Guidance issued by HSE says that this applies where work-related coronavirus is confirmed as the likely cause of death by a doctor: it would then need to be reported as a death due to exposure to a biological agent.

The deaths reported to HSE so far are a small proportion of the number of healthcare workers who have died from covid-19 in this time: the Nursing Notes website suggests there were 190 health and social care workers in the UK whose deaths had been reported by 9am on 4 May. However, at least 17 of these were in social care and some of the 190 may have been reported to HSE after 3 May. An HSJ analysis published on 5 May looked at 130 healthcare workers who had died.

Just because a death has been reported to the HSE under RIDDOR regulations, does not mean it will be investigated but HSE can take legal action if a case is not reported to it, usually leading to a fine. This would be in addition to any other legal action taken against the trust. if the HSE judged it was failing in its duty to protect staff. 

While it is hard to prove NHS staff have contracted covid-19 through work, some of the fatalities have involved doctors who had complained about lack of personal protective equipment. For example, Dr Peter Tun, who worked at the Royal Berkshire Hospital, had repeatedly asked for better PPE according to The Guardian.

The chief coroner Mark Lucraft has said he expects some covid-19 deaths to be reportable to coroners and may lead to an inquest. However, he has said inquests would not be the right way of deciding if adequate PPE was available “in the country or part of it” and that coroners should consider their ability to gather evidence about the adequacy of PPE in particular hospitals or departments.

A HSE spokesperson said: “We are working tirelessly across a number of areas to help in the national response to the coronavirus outbreak including assessing those deaths that have been reported to us. Where those deaths reported through RIDDOR meet the investigation criteria, they are being processed and an investigation initiated.

 “We are unable to comment on individual investigations at this time. We are aware that the numbers of cases reported elsewhere are higher. Not all of these cases will be attributed to a workplace exposure but we do anticipate more cases will continue to be reported to us over time.

 “We are committed to ensuring we become aware of all deaths that should be reported to us through RIDDOR.”