Thursday, 10 September 2009

Department of Health consults on pandemic flu contingency legislation for mental health

The Department of Health today launched a consultation on whether there is a need to make temporary changes to the Mental Health Act 1983 should exceptional circumstances arise during pandemic flu. The contingency legislation would enable mental health patients to continue to get the treatment they need in the event of severe staff absences

The 1983 Act enables people with mental health problems to be detained in hospital, where necessary and justified, for care and treatment. The Act sets out a range of processes that professionals have to follow when people need to be detained. For example, detaining someone normally requires the agreement of two doctors.

We are consulting on whether we should temporarily change certain aspects of the 1983 Act in the event of severe staff absences during pandemic flu. The changes would ensure that mental health professionals could continue to operate the Act in the best interests of the patient and for the protection of others.

Strong safeguards would remain in place to protect patients rights, for example, the right to an independent mental health advocate. In addition, if the contingencies are implemented, we also propose to ask the Care Quality Commission to convene an oversight group with representation from national mental health service user and professional bodies to advise on progress and the need for ongoing contingency measures.

Louis Appleby, National Director of Mental Health Services said:

“There are already strong contingency plans in place for pandemic flu in mental health services, as there are for the rest of the NHS.

“It is important that we find out whether temporary changes in the Mental Health Act would help professionals and protect patients. We will also consider what in what kind of exceptional circumstances we might need to use them. It would only be in exceptional circumstances and strong safeguards would remain in place.

“We are determined to make sure we have a sensible, proportionate approach that ensures that vulnerable mental health patients continue to get the treatment they need, when they need it, even in the event of staff absences. It is only sensible to be prepared for every eventuality.”

The proposals fall into three categories:

  • Reducing the number of doctors required to comply with a number of sections in the 1983 Act – for example, it will be possible to detain someone in hospital under section 2 or 3 and the courts will be able to send someone to hospital rather than prison if just one doctor says this is right instead of the usual two.
  • Extending or suspending time limits that apply to certain actions under some provisions in the 1983 Act – for example the obligation to obtain a second medical opinion about medication when someone has been in hospital for three months or more.
Allowing certain additional people to be approved to undertake some specific functions under the 1983 Act – for example some recently-retired approved social workers may be temporarily approved to undertake the role of the approved mental health professional.

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