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Professor John Coggon leads project creating guidance on COVID-19-related changes to UK health law and policy’

29 July 2020

Professor John Coggon (Centre for Health, Law, and Society, University of Bristol Law School), in collaboration with the UK Faculty of Public Health, PolicyBristol and colleagues in Law Schools at Cardiff University, the University of Edinburgh, and Queen’s University Belfast, is leading an Elizabeth Blackwell Institute-funded project to track and analyse COVID-19 related developments in law and policy as these apply to health professionals and the contexts in which they work.

The public health emergency created by the outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 has led to governments across the world instituting extraordinary legal and policy measures. Across the UK, these initially included a general lockdown and changes to shore up workforce capacity within the NHS.

As the lockdown situation has eased, the regulatory questions have grown more complex, with more varied and localised measures being implemented. At the same time, professional, regulatory, and advisory organisations have been issuing guidance with a view to coordinating practical responses to the pandemic.

The need for urgent action has been based on requirements to protect the public’s health and to prevent crucial parts of social infrastructures, including healthcare systems, from becoming critically overwhelmed. However, the speed at which the crisis has unfolded, its surrounding uncertainties, and the direct and indirect consequences of different measures and interventions, all invite careful and continued scrutiny of the framing and operation of the laws, policies, and regulatory instruments that have been put in place.

This project therefore analyses developments in law and policy with reference to concerns about public health ethics, social justice, the protection of human rights, and respect for the rule of law. It also monitors these changes as they apply to health professionals and the contexts in which they work across the four nations of the UK.

As law and policy have developed, complexities and challenges have become increasingly apparent. There have been:

  • Tensions between legal rules;
  • Ambiguities about what constitute legal regulations and what is advisory guidance;
  • Difficulties with clear and effective communications, which are compounded by distinctions across the four nations of the UK.

As part of the project, a series of explanatory resources has been generated to:

  • Explain the framing and operation of the laws, policies, and regulatory instruments that have been put in place;
  • Emphasise the ongoing importance and applicability of human rights and equality laws and their bearing on reflective, ethical practice;
  • Be accessible to non-specialist audiences.

These briefings focus on domains that intersect with healthcare and public health policy.

Professor John Coggon said: "The complexity of the legal and regulatory challenges that COVID-19 presents for the UK Government, Devolved Administrations, and Local Authorities is staggering. Equally, there are significant complexities for professional regulators and advisory bodies, given the extraordinary legal situation and profoundly difficult ethical questions. And of course, at the heart of all this are people - who as citizens and in their work are living through times that are redefining the course of human history.

"A key aspect of the UK's responses to COVID-19 must involve transparent, engaged civic debates of the impacts of the pandemic. This includes a need for understanding and discussion of the legal and ethical issues raised. We are very pleased in this UK-wide collaboration, with colleagues at the UK Faculty of Public Health, to be contributing to this vital project of open, clear, public discourse."

Find out more about the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute-funded project and the resources below on the project page: COVID-19: Explaining the Legal & Ethical Dimensions and Providing Professional & Public Guidance


Further information

Professor John Coggon is Chair in Law at the University of Bristol and a founding member and former Co-Director of the Centre for Health, Law and Society. His primary areas of expertise are in Health Law and Policy, with particular points of focus in Public and Global Health, and Mental Capacity Law. His research is rooted in legal, moral, and political theory, and aims to bring insights from these to policy and practice.

The Centre for Health, Law, and Society (CHLS) promotes cross-disciplinary and cross-sector perspectives on the impacts of law and governance on physical, mental and social wellbeing. Based within the University of Bristol Law School, the CHLS comprises leading scholars whose work focuses on wide-ranging practical areas from within and far beyond health care systems, including clinical medicine, reproductive care, mental health, social care, and public and global health.

The Law School Coronavirus Research Hub brings together the work of academics at the forefront of global efforts to mitigate against the impact of COVID-19 through law and policy adaptation, and to understand the immediate and longer-lasting impacts of the pandemic.

Policy Bristol: This project was also supported by PolicyBristol, a University of Bristol based team dedicated to the targeted dissemination of policy-relevant research findings to policy and practitioner audiences. Its aim is to bridge the gap between research and policy, to enhance the influence of research on effective policy development and implementation.

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