Saving lives threatened by COVID19 is rightly a priority, but many more can be saved by improving patient safety

Peter Walsh

By Peter Walsh, Chief Executive at Action against Medical Accidents

April 2020

On behalf of all of us at AvMA, I would like to state our best wishes and solidarity with all those who have lost loved ones or been seriously affected by COVID19, as well as with the amazing army of health and social care staff and other public servants and volunteers helping us cope with this crisis. I am also proud to say that because of the commitment of our volunteers and staff, we have been able to maintain most of our advice and support services for people who have been affected by avoidable harm in healthcare during the crisis. Another way we are trying to do play our part is by offering to grant leave of absence to some of the health professionals in our employ to go back to the NHS during the crisis.

In these extraordinary times when the pandemic is in the headlines every single day, it is easy to forget that small charities like AvMA continue to do a vital job supporting vulnerable people. That need does not go away because of the pandemic. Indeed it is likely to increase. However, we like many other charities are taking a massive financial hit as a result of the pandemic. We will need all of the support we can get, and we ourselves will need to be even more creative and entrepreneurial in order to sustain and develop the support we provide and the role we play in championing patient safety and justice.

Now is not the time to dwell on what could have been done better to prepare for and react to the pandemic. We are all in this together – analysis can and will come later. However, I would like to share some thoughts about what all this could mean for patient safety.

Every life lost to the virus is a tragedy, but tragedies that occur every week due to lapses in patient safety are equally important. The Government and the NHS are rightly pouring huge resources into trying to save lives, but this must not be at the expense of sacrificing patient safety for those with health problems not related to the virus. Of course, the fantastic health and care staff in the frontline deserve all the support they can get. Their lives are at risk too and it is essential they have the right protective equipment and are freed up as much as possible from non-urgent, routine work. It is right in these extraordinary times that the CQC suspends its routine inspections. In fact, I would like to see them deploying personnel to work in the NHS, helping keep all patients safe. It is also perfectly understandable that the Ombudsman and NHS providers put the investigation of new complaints on hold for the time being. Provided that is, that each one is screened to check whether it concerns what could be an immediate safety issue.

We do not know yet what the death toll from the virus will be in the UK. Estimates I have seen suggests it could be between 10,000 and 20,000, which is shocking. To put this into perspective though, former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt estimated that there are around 9,000 avoidable deaths in the NHS every year in England alone (1). Added to this, the latest statistics show that there are over 60,000 incidents reported in the English NHS resulting in significant and sometimes, catastrophic permanent harm each year (2) .

Many people have said things will never be the same after COVID 19. When it comes to patient safety, I hope they are right. If the country can rise to the challenge of COVID19 and can come up with the billions of pounds being spent to do so, and achieve brilliant things like setting up emergency hospitals in a matter of weeks, it should be obvious that investing in our NHS to prevent the horrendous amount of avoidable harm every year makes sense. Yes, it will cost money, but it will save lives – just like we are doing with this pandemic. A well resourced NHS, with enough doctors, nurses, equipment and capacity, would not only be much safer for all of us in more ‘normal’ times, but it would put us in a much better position to cope with ‘black swan’ events like this pandemic, which may become more frequent.


(1) Ramesh R. 750 avoidable deaths a month in NHS hospitals, study finds. Guardian 14 July 2015.

(2) NHS Improvement: National Patient Safety Incidents Report March 2020.