A mental health charity has branded as “irresponsible” the Government’s Coronavirus bill which would grant single doctors the power to detain the mentally ill.
The Government wants to relax legal safeguards in the Mental Health Act in order to free up medical staff to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
If passed, the bill would reduce the number of doctors needed to approve detaining individuals from the current minimum of two, to just one.
In addition, it would temporarily allow time limits in the Mental Health Act to be extended or removed altogether.
This would mean patients currently detained in mental health facilities could be released into the community early, or be detained for longer.
Mental health leaders say the changes are being rushed through without proper scrutiny and could sideline the needs of the mental ill.
Akiko Hart, chief of National Survivor User Network (NSUN), a UK mental health charity, said: “Whilst we understand that these are unprecedented times, any legislative change must be proportionate and thought through, and should protect all of us. Minimising some of the safeguards in the Mental Health Act and extending its powers, is a step in the wrong direction.”
She added: “We hope that the final wording of the bill will be subject to sufficient scrutiny and that the needs of those experiencing the extremes of distress will not be sidelined.”
The emergency changes to the Mental Health Act are just one part of the government’s sweeping Coronavirus Bill, which could become law by the end of the month.
Some are concerned that the bill affords “unchallengeable” power to the government, which they say could stifle basic rights.
ITN political journalist Robert Peston recommended that everyone read about the bill.
He said: “There has never in my lifetime been a law that so encroached on our civil liberties and basic rights as the Coronavirus Bill, scheduled to become law by end of month.
“It is all aimed at keeping us safe. But the transfer of unchallengeable power to the state for two years is huge.”
He added: “It covers everything from burials, to holding those who threaten national security for longer, to closing borders, to detaining those with mental health issues, to empowering the police to quarantine those with the virus, and much more. This is wartime stuff. I recommend you read about it.”
On its website, the government has outlined the bill’s proposed changes to mental health law.
It read: “The bill seeks to enable existing mental health legislation powers to detain and treat patients who need urgent treatment for a mental health disorder and are a risk to themselves or others, to be implemented using just one doctor’s opinion – rather than the current two.”
The move, Whitehall said, would ensure that those who were a risk to themselves or others would still get the treatment they need, when fewer doctors are available.
The government added that its possible extension or removal of mental health legislation lime limits was to allow for “greater flexibility” where services are less able to respond.
Ms Hart said: “Keeping individuals unnecessarily detained beyond their section because of workforce pressures is a violation of their human rights.
She added: “Equally, releasing individuals because of pressures on the workforce or the mental health estate is deeply irresponsible.
“Our concern is that the proposed Coronavirus Bill would have serious consequences for some of the people it seeks to protect, and is a deep and onerous encroachment on both our civil liberties and our rights to appropriate support.”
She also said that it was unclear what the proposals would look like in practice and on the impact of people with mental health difficulties.
The government highlighted that the changes to mental health law would only proceed if staff numbers were severely affected by the Coronavirus pandemic.
The sweeping bill covers five broad action areas. The aims include to increase the available health and social care workforce, ease the burden on frontline staff and contain and slow the virus.
In addition, it aims to support workers by granting them Statutory Sick Pay from day one and also aims to manage the deceased with respect and dignity.