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18th December 2023

A letter to the GMC on doctors convicted of offences related to protests on climate change and nature loss

UKHACC Chair, Richard Smith has written to the GMC to ask them to allow doctors appearing before them for offences linked to protests on climate change and nature to explain why they have taken the actions they have

Dear Professor Dame Carrie and  Mr Massey,

I am the chair of the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, and I’m writing on behalf of the Alliance to ask you to be as lenient as the law allows you to be with doctors who will soon appear before you because they have been convicted of offences resulting from their protests against the damage to nature, the climate, and health.

The Alliance, as I hope you know, brings together 46 organisations of health professionals, including most of the royal colleges (physicians, nurses, GPs, surgeons, pharmacists, etc), the BMA, the Lancet, and the BMJ. Altogether our members’ members number over a million, most of the NHS workforce. We emphasise that the climate and nature crisis is a health crisis. UKHACC works to mitigate the crisis, encouraging adaptation as harm to health is already here, and promoting the benefits that will flow to health if we make the changes we need to make to respond to the climate and nature crisis.

We are fully aware that the GMC must conform to the requirements of the Medical Act and are constrained in the actions you can take. You have said that in the case of doctors appearing before you who have been convicted of offences arising from their protesting: “we would make our decision based on the specific facts of the case. Our focus would be on whether the doctor’s actions may have fallen seriously or persistently below the standards we set or put patients or the public confidence in the profession at risk. Doctors must always be prepared to justify their decisions and actions.” (1)

It will be important for you to allow the doctors to explain fully the reason for the actions they have taken. You will be aware of the recent case where nine defendants were acquitted of criminal damage after they had had the chance to explain why they took such extreme actions. The defendants accepted that they had damaged the property and their only defence was that they were justified in doing so. (2)

You will as well be aware of other cases where the judges have not allowed defendants to explain their motivation. (3) Some of these cases have resulted in prison sentences that the United Nations has called excessive. (4)

We assume that doctors appearing before the GMC will be able to explain why they have taken actions that have been judged criminal. Might you be able to confirm that that will be the case?

You will know that the Secretary General of the United Nations, the Pope, and the King have all expressed forcefully their anxiety that the world is heading to catastrophe because of damage to nature and the climate and that the responses by world leaders are inadequate. UKHACC agrees. Antionio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, has said that: “Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels.” Despite more than 30 years of warning of the escalating danger, there has not been the transformational response that is needed.

It is in these extreme circumstances that doctors committed to public health have resorted to actions judged criminal.

As an article by Dr Terry Kemple, a former president of the Royal College of General Practitioners and trustee of UKHACC, says: “The GMC has an implicit duty to take appropriate actions to identify and reduce the risks when there are threats to the public’s health.” (5)  Good Medical Practice states that “doctors in particular have a duty to act when they believe patients’ safety is at risk, or that patients’ care or dignity are being compromised.” (6)

It is in this context that some doctors have taken actions that have resulted in criminal convictions, and we are sure that the GMC will consider all these factors when making what will be difficult judgements.

Yours faithfully

Dr Richard Smith CBE, FMedSci, FRCPE, FRCGP, FFPHM, FRCSE, FRCPSG

Chair, UKHACC

1     GMC. Quoted in: Terry Kemple (2020) The Climate Emergency: Are the Doctors who take Non-violent Direct Action to Raise Public Awareness Radical Activists, Rightminded Professionals, or Reluctant Whistleblowers?, The New Bioethics, 26:2, 111-124, DOI:10.1080/20502877.2020.1775390

2     Laville S. Jury clears climate protesters of causing damage to HSBC London HQ. Guardian 2023; November 16.  https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/nov/16/climate-protesters-cleared-of-causing-criminal-damage-to-hsbc-london-hq

3     Laville S. Court restrictions on climate protesters ‘deeply concerning’, say leading lawyers. Guardian 2023; March 8. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/mar/08/court-restrictions-on-climate-protesters-deeply-concerning-say-leading-lawyers

4     Rowlatt J. UN criticises ‘severe’ Just Stop Oil sentences. BBC News 2023; November 21. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/articles/cn0p6ll3jjg

5     Terry Kemple (2020) The Climate Emergency: Are the Doctors who take Non-violent Direct Action to Raise Public Awareness Radical Activists, Rightminded Professionals, or Reluctant Whistleblowers?, The New Bioethics, 26:2, 111-124, DOI:10.1080/20502877.2020.1775390

6     GMC. Good Medical Practice [online] 2013. Available from: https://www.gmc-uk.org/ethical-guidance/ethical-guidance-for-doctors/good-medical-practice