Mental health charities have expressed concerns at government plans to cope with a possible swine flu pandemic that would make it easier to section people in hospital.
The Department of Health (DH) is carrying out a short consultation on whether to make temporary changes to the Mental Health Act in case there is a severe shortage of mental health staff this autumn and winter.
Detaining someone in hospital for treatment usually needs the agreement of two doctors, but this could be changed to just one.
Another possibility is to extend or suspend time limits that apply to parts of the act, such as the need to obtain a second opinion about medication when someone has been detained for three months.
The DH said the measures would only be used in “exceptional circumstances” and “strong safeguards” would remain, such as the right to an independent advocate.
The Care Quality Commission would set up a group to oversee the temporary laws.
Paul Jenkins, chief executive of the mental health charity Rethink, said the DH was right to plan for a possible outbreak but warned they should “tread very carefully”.
He said the MHA was “very carefully balanced, ensuring that there are significant protections and safeguards for individuals faced with losing their liberty and being forced to accept treatment”.
He said it was just as important that the DH offers people with schizophrenia early access to the swine flu vaccine, because of their high rates of respiratory illnesses.
Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, said “emergency measures” were necessary in “exceptional circumstances”, but proposals to cut the number of professionals involved in sectioning “should only be used as a last resort”.
He said: “Sectioning effectively deprives people of their liberty, and the reason that a number of professionals are involved is to ensure that the best decision is made for the patient, and no one is detained inappropriately.
“The government must ensure that plans are carefully crafted, clearly identifying how and when emergency powers will be triggered and that robust safeguards are in place to protect mental health patients.”
He said the CQC would play an important role.
Louis Appleby, national director of mental health services, said it was important to find out whether temporary changes in the act would “help professionals and protect patients” and in what “exceptional circumstances” they might be needed.
The consultation is at www.dh.gov.uk/en/Consultations/Liveconsultations/index.htm and closes on 7 October.
11 September 2009