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Isolation of patients in psychiatric hospitals in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic: An ethical, legal, and practical challenge

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Christian Brown, Alex Ruck Keene, Carwyn Rhys Hooper, Aileen O'Brien

Original languageEnglish
Article number101572
JournalInternational Journal of Law and Psychiatry
Published1 Jul 2020

King's Authors


Psychiatric inpatients are particularly vulnerable to the transmission and effects of COVID-19. As such, healthcare providers should implement measures to prevent its spread within mental health units, including adequate testing, cohorting, and in some cases, the isolation of patients. Respiratory isolation imposes a significant limitation on an individual's right to liberty, and should be accompanied by appropriate legal safeguards. This paper explores the implications of respiratory isolation in English law, considering the applicability of the common law doctrine of necessity, the Mental Capacity Act 2005, the Mental Health Act 1983, and public health legislation. We then interrogate the practicality of currently available approaches by applying them to a series of hypothetical cases. There are currently no ‘neat’ or practicable solutions to the problem of lawfully isolating patients on mental health units, and we discuss the myriad issues with both mental health and public health law approaches to the problem. We conclude by making some suggestions to policymakers.

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