Doctors and patients blow whistle on medical regulator’s inaction on climate - Extinction Rebellion UK

Doctors and patients blow whistle on medical regulator’s inaction on climate

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Doctors belonging to the Planetary Health Coalition have joined together with members of the public today ( 18 April) to demonstrate outside the General Medical Council (GMC) in protest at its lack of leadership over climate change’s dangerous implications for public health.

The theatrical protest saw health workers queuing at a ‘moral injury unit’, to present complaints about their difficulties as clinicians witnessing the effects of the climate emergency, as those in positions of power appeared not to grasp the urgency of the unfolding crisis.

Protestors also placed a giant red whistle outside the GMC’s offices in a plea for the organisation to wake up and sound the alarm on the dangers to public health that climate breakdown is creating.

Members of the public were also in attendance representing patients, carrying placards depicting the health impacts of climate change in the UK and calling for patients to be protected. 

A sister protest at the GMC offices in Edinburgh was also held by a smaller group of doctors and patients.

Dr Hilary Neve, GP and Honorary Professor at the University of Plymouth said: “In the UK 29-43,000 people die unnecessarily every year because of air pollution. In addition we are now seeing increasing heat waves, allergic asthma emergencies, and malnutrition linked to crop failure and the rising cost of food. This is not to mention the mental health consequences, especially for young people, as global systems collapse.”

The GMC sets out ethical standards for doctors and recently published updated guidance which included two additional duties relating to sustainability.

However, medic and ethicist Dr Rammina Yassaie said:  

“Whilst including sustainability into doctors’ ethical standards is welcome, the added duties are described as optional, suggesting net zero healthcare can be achieved through voluntary progress alone. There seems to be a failure to truly appreciate the global harms caused by high-emission healthcare as well as the health benefits of meaningful climate action. We believe practising climate-conscious medicine should be a clear duty of a doctor, and that the regulator has a responsibility to embed this more clearly into medical standards.” 

The protestors also highlighted GMC’s investments and pension fund which exclude coal and tar sands extraction but not all oil and gas. The GMC banks with RBS, part of the Natwest Group, who remain financiers of fossil fuel projects. 

Dr Christelle Blunden, a GP in Southampton, previously wrote an open letter to the GMC signed by over 300 doctors calling for divestment but no action was taken. She says: 

“Doctors want their money out of ecologically destructive industries. Fossil fuel finance is the leading reason the climate crisis is not being tackled. Those who set the ethical compass for our profession should not need congratulating on the small, slow steps they are taking in a global health emergency, but should be leading by example.”

The protest comes as Dr Sarah Benn, a GP from Birmingham, is the first doctor to face a fitness to practise tribunal for her involvement with non-violent direct action in relation to the climate emergency. Dr Benn was given a prison sentence for holding a placard on a verge and sitting down in the road at the premises of an oil company who had a special injunction barring protest. 

A series of new laws introduced since 2021 have significantly narrowed the legal space for protest in the UK, leaving many concerned health workers at greater risk of prosecution. Meanwhile, judicial decisions made over the same period have made key legal defences increasingly unavailable to protestors, limiting their ability to defend themselves, and almost certainly increasing the likelihood of conviction. Such legal and judicial restrictions on protest  were recently condemned by the UN special rapporteur on Environmental Defenders and has led to a national campaign to defend trial by Jury in the UK. 

The planetary health coalition hopes the GMC will acknowledge that the actions of these courageous whistleblowing doctors is in line with their professional responsibilities, and that they are taking action within the context of failing political leadership on climate and a narrowing legal space for protest.

Notes for editors:

For more information, interviews and quotes contact:

Dr Christelle Blunden: 07971 497879

Dr Rammina Yassaie 07740349466

Ali Rowe – 07901 916489




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