On 25 March 2022, the inquest into the death of Mr Mark Woolcock, an NHS employee who sadly died from COVID-19, concluded. HM assistant coroner for London East, Ian Wade QC, delivered a narrative conclusion. In this article, we provide a brief overview of the coroner’s conclusion and offer our observations on the outcome.
Mr Woolcock was a loyal, hardworking and longstanding member of staff for the NHS. He worked within the non-emergency patient transport services (NEPTS) which is part of Barts Health NHS Trust (the Trust). In March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, Mr Woolcock contracted COVID-19 and subsequently died on 20 April 2020.
During an 11-day inquest, the coroner heard from 15 witnesses from the Trust, family and the Health and Safety Executive.
Given that this was an Article 2 European Court of Human Rights inquest, and there was a possibility that Mr Woolcock’s death was a consequence of his employment, the relevant Trust systems were investigated by the coroner.
The Trust, in March 2020 and thereafter, confirmed that they were tasked with following the ever-evolving national guidelines on COVID-19. In March 2020, little was known about COVID-19 in terms of how it spreads, how to protect against infection and how severe infection can be. In addition, testing at the time was very limited. The Trust confirmed that at the relevant time, NEPTS drivers were not carrying known or suspected positive COVID-19 patients.
Ultimately, the coroner gave a narrative conclusion which confirmed that whilst it is possible that Mr Woolcock became infected with COVID-19 through coming into contact with a positive COVID-19 patient during the course of his employment, such an event was “inadvertent and not the result of a failure of system nor breach of duty". He concluded that Mr Woolcock suffered multi-organ failure and died on 20 April 2020 from COVID-19, a natural disease. The coroner was satisfied that Mr Woolcock did not come by his sad death due to an ascertainable failure by his employer, the NHS.
The coroner did not consider that a Prevention of Future Deaths Report was required. Understandably, in March 2020 the systems in place for COVID-19 were very different to how they are at present, given the advancement in scientific and medicinal understanding of the disease.
This inquest was one of the first for an NHS employee who had died from COVID-19, and this is reflected in the coroner’s extended concluding remarks spanning 25 pages.
This is an important decision because it demonstrates that the judiciary in inquisitorial proceedings will be very mindful of the impact of the pandemic. It remains to be seen whether this mindset will be taken across into civil proceedings.