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Scots doctors: Suspension of climate protester by medical watchdog’s disciplinary arm is politically motivated

Retired GP, Dr Cath Dyer, protests outside Holyrood.
Retired GP, Dr Cath Dyer, protests outside Holyrood.

Doctors have condemned the suspension of a colleague who protested against climate change by the General Medical Council’s (GMC) disciplinary arm.

The medics, some of whom have been arrested for demonstrating against pollution and global warming, say doctors have a duty to demonstrate against serious ­environmental illnesses.

Scottish medics are calling the GMC suspension “coercive control and politically motivated”.

GP Dr Sarah Benn was suspended for five months by the GMC’s Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS) for breaching court orders after being arrested.

She was subsequently jailed for 32 days.

Last week Dr Cath Dyer, 74, a retired GP from Falkirk who has also been arrested and charged for climate protesting, said she and many other Scottish doctors were angered by the GMC’s action.

Dyer, a member of Christian Climate Action, associated with Extinction Rebellion, says she is backed by three other Scottish ­doctor members. She said: “The GMC said it suspended Dr Benn because they are duty bound to consider concerns regarding doctors who have broken the law, regardless of the medic’s motivation.

“But we argue that climate change and pollution are the main health threats of our time and, as doctors, we must do everything to prevent disease as well as to try to cure it.

“The climate crisis is linked to an increase in respiratory and heart disease and also increases the risk of poor mental health.

“We would not be doing our duty as doctors if we failed to protest against anything that seriously affects patients’ health.”

Criticism of the GMC also came from the British Medical Association (BMA) last week.

Dr Latifa Patel, BMA ­representative body chair and workforce lead, said: “Like any citizen, doctors should adhere to the law, but many will find it very difficult to understand that their ability to practise medicine could be suspended because of peaceful actions they take in protest of the climate crisis.”

The GMC’s suspension is seen by many medics as attempts to silence them, even if when they have retired from clinical work.

A leading Scottish doctor said: “This is coercive control by the GMC and politically driven. It is not concern for doctors’ reputations.”

A joint report by the Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of Child and Paediatric Health urged doctors to condemn air pollution.

It said: “When our patients are exposed to such a clear and avoidable cause of death, illness and disability, it is our duty as ­doctors to speak out.”

Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, mother of Ella, who died from a fatal asthma attack caused by traffic fumes, said: “The coroner’s report into Ella’s death said the public need to be informed and encouraged medics to speak to patients about the dangers of pollution. Doctors are being asked to raise awareness and serious questions have to be asked about the suspension of doctors who raise awareness and protest.

“Medics must make a lot of noise about the risk of pollution to children.”

Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, © PA
Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah,

Dyer was previously arrested along with her husband, Richard, for protesting in Edinburgh and London, where she was detained in a police cell.

Last week she took part, along with others, including doctors, in the monthly Christian Climate Action vigil outside the Scottish Parliament.

“I don’t know anyone who thinks that Dr Benn’s suspension is right and part of our duty is to support measures to prevent illness,” she said.

“Many working doctors certainly feel the same, but it is difficult for them to call out the GMC or demonstrate because they fear being disciplined and possibly losing their jobs. They are also busy working.”

Benn, 57, formerly a GP in Birmingham, was arrested after taking part in peaceful demonstrations at the Kingsbury oil terminal in Warwickshire.

She argued that, as a doctor, she had a moral duty to act to protect life and health.

The GMC suspended her for five months. She was still registered with the GMC but had retired from seeing patients.

Last night the GMC said: “Dr Sarah Benn was referred to a hearing at the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service not for protesting about climate change, but for multiple breaches of a court order, which resulted in a custodial sentence.

“Like all citizens, doctors have the right to express their personal opinions on issues, including climate change. There is nothing in our guidance to prevent them from doing so, nor from exercising their right to lobby government and to campaign, including taking part in protests.

“However, patients and the public rightly have a high degree of trust in doctors and that trust can be eroded if doctors repeatedly fail to comply with the law.

“Our fitness to practise ­investigations consider cases that are referred to us and where doctors have broken the law, not their ­motivations for doing so.

“It is not the role of regulators to determine UK law – that is a matter for Parliament.”