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British doctors involved in climate protests face being deregistered

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British doctors involved in climate protests face being deregistered

Dr Sarah Benn has long worried about the climate crisis, diligently recycling until she is blue in the face. But the rise of climate activist group Extinction Rebellion in 2019 inspired her and her husband to go further. “We thought, well, if we don’t do it, who else will?”

While working as a GP near Birmingham, Benn became increasingly involved in direct action over the following years and once put her hand to the door of the Department of Business, Energy and the Industrial Strategy to protest against the government’s inaction on climate.

Benn now faces a professional tribunal at the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service (MPTS), the disciplinary body of the General Medical Council (GMC), to determine whether she can retain her license to practice. She is one of three general practitioners who faces being disbarred this year for climate activism, and her case in April is the first that will be heard.

Doctors are required to inform the GMC if they are accused or convicted of a criminal offense. Benn went further by informing the professional body and his local NHS employer. every time she was arrested. “There’s no indication as to any sort of protest or activist-related things from the GMC… but I wanted to be transparent,” she said.

After his first four criminal convictions – two for obstructing a highway, one for arresting people engaged in a lawful activity and one for flying a drone in a restricted place – the GMC opened an investigation. Although Benn received parole, it ended with a letter of counseling asking him to “reflect on his actions and remain mindful of his future professional obligations.”

“They took on board my comments at the time that I didn’t see myself as a risk and that I was going to continue doing this sort of thing until I felt it was no longer necessary,” Benn said. “So they knew before they made their decision that I was going to continue.”

It was only when Benn was found in contempt of court for breaching a civil injunction at the Kingsbury oil terminal in Warwickshire as part of the Just Stop Oil campaign that she was referred to a full court. Benn spent a total of 31 days in prison for this action.

Patrick Hart has a series of convictions for climate activism, including a suspended prison sentence. Photograph: Jordan Pettitt/PA

Bristol GP Dr Patrick Hart also has a string of convictions for climate activism, one of which resulted in a suspended prison sentence. After rejecting a formal warning from the GMC, he was told he would appear in court in November.

“The lawyer I spoke to said it was unusually lenient, but I didn’t accept it. Partly because it would have been dishonest and partly because I’m angry at them for… not making a meaningful statement about all of this and enthusiastically investigating people for questions of conscience and care. patients,” Hart said.

In a statement, the GMC said its guidance was clear: “like all citizens, doctors are entitled to their own personal political views, and nothing in the standards we set prevents them from exercising their right to lobby on the government or to campaign on the government. problems.”

However, it specifies that if a doctor is sentenced to a custodial sentence after a criminal conviction, referral to the MPTS is mandatory.

The MPTS was established in 2012 after a recommendation from the Shipman Inquiry that doctors should be assessed for fitness to practice independently of the GMC. In addition to cases of clinical negligence and research malpractice, he frequently hears cases of doctors tampering with books, sleeping with patients or driving drunk.

“Many doctors are politically active and have made efforts within social justice movements,” Benn noted. “But not, to my knowledge, that resulted in criminal convictions that then led to a court to assess their fitness to practice.”

Benn is now retired and no longer practices as a GP. But she wants the GMC to recognize the importance of its actions and says doctors should be seen as “trusted messengers”.

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“Humanity has never faced this kind of existential crisis before, which will have massive public health implications,” she said. “I’m really worried about my children’s future and mine, and all the people around the world who are already starving, displaced and suffering right now because of what we continue to do: extracting fossil fuels and burn them. And so penalizing someone for trying to do something about it, that’s not the way we should do it.

At the very least, she hopes the GMC will develop guidelines for the medical profession on activism, which she plans to stay involved with.

Hart doesn’t think most doctors appreciate their role on the front lines of the climate crisis and in drawing public attention to it. He said: “I started this course thinking I had a role as a science communicator. A few have tried valiantly, but the vast majority of doctors don’t even think about it. So there remains a huge gap between the science and what the general public, politicians and businesses understand about what is happening.”

Benn said he has seen growing activism in his profession, which is reflected in academic literature. Last year, more than 150 health workers wrote an open letter to the Attorney General, expressing concern about the prosecution of Trudi Warner for holding a sign outside London Crown Court stating the right of a jury to acquit a defendant based on their conscience.

Benn and Hart are still facing criminal trials during which they could lose their freedom, as well as their professional licenses.

“The truth is (activism has) improved my ability to practice as a physician,” Hart said. “This is what allows me to continue to engage with my patients from a long-term perspective, from a perspective of compassion and intergenerational health care. And that’s what allowed me to believe in health care as something of social value in a society that has a thriving future ahead of it.”

Benn said: “I am not a danger to the public in terms of patients. For me it all comes down to this one paragraph in (the GMCs) Good medical practices, which says “you must ensure that your conduct justifies your patients’ confidence in you and the public’s confidence in the profession.” What constitutes public trust today? I’m fascinated by how they’re going to argue this point.

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