‘Extraordinary’ government powers could see mental health safeguards suspended, warn campaigners

Health Secretary Matt Hancock in Downing Street, London, as the government is expected to publish an

Health Secretary Matt Hancock in Downing Street, London, as the government is expected to publish an emergency coronavirus powers Bill. Picture: Aaron Chown/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Campaigners have warned against a “suspension of safeguards” to mental health detention laws, as requirements are set to be relaxed to help tackle the coronavirus outbreak.

Details of the government’s proposed new measures were published today (Thursday, March 19), with MPs set to vote on the Emergency Coronavirus Bill in the coming days.

Existing laws allow patients posing a risk to themselves or others to be detained for urgent treatment - or ‘sectioned’ - for an initial 28 days and a subsequent six months.

But as part of measures to reduce pressure on the health service, the bill would allow:

Patients to be detained with the agreement of just one doctor - rather than two,


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Extending or removing time limits on detentions,

Delays to assessments for continuing treatment after discharge,

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And local authorities not to fully meet people’s needs for care at home.

A spokesman for the Campaign to Save Mental Health Services in Norfolk and Suffolk said the new powers were “extraordinary… [and] as unavoidable as they are unwelcome “.

He said: “Given the chronic and severe underfunding of mental health services and the NHS, the measures will have an impact on the lives and liberty of people with mental illness.

“However, any suspension of safeguards must be strictly time-limited and clinically-led, with regular democratic oversight.”

And he warned there could be a risk from “cramming people into already overcrowded mental health wards.”

Dawn Collins, deputy chief nurse at the Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (NSFT), said: “The measures will assist staff to deliver the care required under the Mental Health Act whilst maintaining effective safeguards.”

Ms Collins, who is the trust’s lead on preparations for the virus, said the plans were consulted on in 2009 after the swine flu outbreak.

“The proposed measures are not unexpected,” she said.

“We are doing everything we can to ensure the best possible care for the people who use our services and their carers.”

The trust has set up a team to direct its response to the outbreak, and said it has continuity plans in place to allow it to “respond flexibly to meet the needs of the people in our care”.

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