Revised guidance on reporting of deaths during coronavirus outbreak

On May 13 2020 the Lord Advocate, James Wolffe QC, provided an update to the Scottish Parliament on arrangements for the reporting of deaths during the Covid-19/coronavirus outbreak.

The Lord Advocate has instructed that the following are reported to the Procurator Fiscal:

  • all Covid-19 or presumed Covid-19 deaths where the deceased might have contracted the virus in the course of their employment or occupation.
  • all Covid-19 or presumed Covid-19 deaths where the deceased was resident in a care home when the virus was contracted.

There is more information on this website here about the role of the Procurator Fiscal in investigating deaths.

Here is the full text of the statement to the Scottish Parliament.

As Lord Advocate, I am constitutionally responsible for the investigation of sudden, unexpected and unexplained deaths in Scotland. Although I exercise that function independently of any other person, I want to take this opportunity to advise Parliament of the approach that I am taking to that responsibility, in relation to deaths attributable to Covid-19.

At the outset of the pandemic, I issued a direction that Covid-19 or presumed Covid-19 deaths do not require to be reported to the Crown unless there is some other substantive reason for reporting the death. That direction was consistent with the approach that has been taken in relation to other significant outbreaks of infectious disease. That approach helps to reduce the demands on the medical profession while maintaining the overall integrity of the system for reporting and investigating deaths.

In that system, a death falls to be reported to the Crown if the circumstances are such as to give rise to public anxiety. My officials have been keeping the situation under review, and I have concluded that two categories of Covid-19 or presumed Covid-19 deaths meet that criterion, and should accordingly be reported to the Crown.

The first of those categories is all Covid-19 or presumed Covid-19 deaths where the deceased might have contracted the virus in the course of their employment or occupation. Although not exhaustive, that might include the deaths of care home workers, front-line National Health Service staff, public transport employees and emergency services personnel. The second category is all Covid-19 or presumed Covid-19 deaths where the deceased was resident in a care home when the virus was contracted.

My officials have been working closely with the office of the Chief Medical Officer, and others, on the practical arrangements to implement those principles. Once that work is concluded, a letter will be issued from the office of the CMO and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service to medical practitioners, to advise them that from the date of that letter they should report any death that falls in either of those two categories to the Crown.

My decision also applies to deaths in those two categories that have already occurred. However, arrangements are being made so that the Crown can obtain the information that it requires to identify and register those deaths without imposing any burden of retrospective reporting on medical practitioners.

Those steps will ensure that all deaths within the two categories that I have described will be registered within the Crown system of death investigation, and that each of those deaths can be investigated. The nature and extent of the investigation that is required in relation to any particular death or group of deaths will depend on the particular circumstances. In some cases, the investigation required might be quite limited, and in others it might be more extensive. That will depend on the particular circumstances.

In that regard, it would be premature for me to speculate at this stage on whether a fatal accident inquiry into any particular death or category of death from Covid-19 would or would not be appropriate. Those are decisions that will fall to be made on the basis of the circumstances of each particular case, once it has been investigated.

In discharging my responsibilities for the investigation of deaths, I am acutely conscious of the interests of bereaved relatives who face sudden loss. The Crown will be sensitive to the needs of bereaved relatives, and will keep them informed about any investigation in accordance with the family liaison charter, which I laid before Parliament in 2016.

The Crown will take a multi-agency approach, working with other agencies that have relevant responsibilities: the Health and Safety Executive, local authorities, the Care Inspectorate, the police, and others. That will ensure first that the right investigations are undertaken by the right agency or agencies in each case. Secondly, it will ensure that the Crown, in fulfilment of its independent responsibilities, can make the right decisions about whether further investigation, or any further process of inquiry, is required in each particular case. The approach to the reporting of deaths that I have outlined is the first stage in enabling those steps to taken.

I am confident that the process will help to make sure that, in due course, we as a society will better understand the circumstances of those deaths. It will also ensure that, where we can, society will learn lessons for the future. We do that knowing that every one of those deaths is an individual tragedy that calls for profound sorrow, compassion and respect from each of us.