The Challenges of a Pandemic in Secure Psychiatric Settings

“Before COV-19, the phrase “parity of esteem” was ubiquitous.

Policy makers and politicians emphasised the importance of high quality mental healthcare, insisting it was on an equal footing with physical healthcare.

Most mental health professionals viewed this with some cynicism, especially those working in secure inpatient settings.

Is it reasonable to expect parity when it comes to covid-19? Arguably it would not be reasonable to expect the same focus on, for example, PPE and testing as that directed towards the acute emergency services and intensive care.

However, inpatient units struggled with the lack of central guidance on managing patients who had been diagnosed with or were suspected of having covid-19.

Patients with serious mental disorders are at high risk of physical health problems. While they are acutely unwell, they:

  • May not have the capacity to understand the need to self-isolate;
  • May be unable or unwilling to be tested; and
  • If agitated, will be unlikely to be able to practice social distancing.

Mental health trusts have been struggling:

  • With protocols and the availability of testing;
  • With managing the direct contacts of patients; and
  • Like other settings, with sourcing appropriate PPE.

There is intense debate about the apparent lack of appropriate legal frameworks. In the case of a voluntary or inform patient, can the Mental Health Act be used? The Mental Capacity Act is not appropriate as it applies top decisions in the patient’s best interests, not for the protection of others.

The Coronavirus Act 2020 give public health officers the power to impose isolation on someone suspected of being infected, but this seems unlikely to extend to inpatient units.

If parity of esteem is ever going to be meaningful, the challenges of safely and securely managing coivd-19 in the most seriously unwell patients with mental disorders needs to be given a higher priority.”


O’Brien, A. (2020) The Challenges of a Pandemic in Secure Psychiatric Settings. BMJ 2020;369:No.8247, pp.318-319.

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