The General Medical Council sides with environmental offenders

The General Medical Council sides with environmental offenders

by David Whyte

Sarah Benn, a GP and NHS doctor of more than 30 years was today suspended from practicing for 5 months for taking part in climate protests. A Medical Practitioners Tribunal hearing, convened by the General Medical Council (GMC), the regulatory body for doctors found Sarah guilty of misconduct.  Yet, as she told the Tribunal, her motivation is squarely in line with her professional duty to protect public health. 

My involvement in nonviolent direct action attempting to force the urgent actions advised by climate scientists to protect public health and the very survival of life on earth should not constitute misconduct.

Sarah recieved a custodial sentence for participating in a peaceful demonstration at Kingsbury oil terminal in Warwickshire, a site operated by oil company Valero.

The Tribunal’s decision sets a disturbing precedent for the increasing numbers of medical professionals taking direct action in response to climate breakdown.

Two weeks ago Sarah Benn addressed to our conference Climate of Injustice.  She spoke passionate about her professional commitment to public health and told the conference that her conscience could not let her do anything else. As a doctor she has a duty to put the health of her patients above everything else.  As she said: 

How could my patients trust me again if I didn’t take action to confront the greatest health crisis we face?”

Sarah joins our conference panel discussing her case

At this conference, the UN Special Rapporteur for Environmental Defenders, Michel Forst made a statement in which he indicated that disciplinary action against doctors for participation in peaceful environmental protest could breach Article 3(8) of the Aarhus Convention.  He told the conference:

Several medical doctors are currently facing the risk of losing their license – and all that goes with it – for having participated in peaceful environmental protests in the UK. It is important for me to stress that professional sanctions can definitely be considered as a form of “penalisation, persecution or harassment” and would therefore fall within the scope of my mandate.

In other words, the British regulator of the medical profession, the GMC, is under the UN spotlight for potential breaches of international treaty standards that the British government is obliged to comply with.

In this respect, the GMC is not only out of line with international standards, but is out of line with the profession.  Sarah Benn is one of an estimated 130 medical professional who have been arrested for the same reason.  In 2019, Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, the leading medical journal, called on all medical practitioners to take direct action, arguing that all health professionals have a duty and obligation to engage in all kinds of non-violent social protest to address the climate emergency because it represents the most existential crisis facing our communities in the world today.

Protestors outside Sarah's tribunal

This is a hugely disproportionate decision, and one that the GMC will no doubt argue has been made in accordance with its codes of conduct.  Yet Sarah Benn’s case opens up a major contradiction in those codes of conduct, one that has forced the GMC to take sides.  

On the one hand, the GMC’s rules on Good Medical Practice require doctors to protect and promote the health of patients and the public. On the other hand GMC tends to treat those convicted of criminal offences harshly. 

Yet it does make some exceptions.  Offences that are not required to be heard under GMC rules include speeding, traffic light offences, talking on a mobile phone while driving, dog fouling and urinating in public. 

It is a very strange medical regulator that does not consider public health threats like driving through a red light or allowing a dog to defecate on the streets to warrant a hearing, but at the same time will suspend from practice someone who is engaged in peaceful protest to protect the health of the planet and its people. 

This decision has placed the GMC squarely in support of an oil company’s campaign to silence any opposition.  It has punished an environmental defender – Sarah Benn – for standing up to the environmental offenders that threaten public health.  By taking this stand, the GMC has positively decided to place itself on the wrong side of history.

David Whyte is Director of the Centre for Climate Crime and Climate Justice.