NHS complaints procedures and the coronavirus: update

Although dental providers are continuing to adapt the way they provide services, it's likely there won't be a return to ‘normal’ ways of working for a considerable time.

Depending on how the pandemic progresses, it is also possible that the disruption it causes to the delivery of all NHS services will again reach a threshold where there may be a need for the NHS to concentrate on prioritising those affected by the virus.

We recognise the additional uncertainty this creates, and want to remind members that we are here to support you. We will continue to guide, support and defend you throughout.

Local resolution

Although NHS England had the option to put some complaint handing on pause between 26 March and 1 July 2020, some regions continued to handle complaints. The NHS England complaint handling process has now been resumed nationally. There was no 'pause' on local resolution of complaints in Scotland or Wales, though the effect of the pandemic on a dental practice's ability to respond to a complaint in a timely manner is recognised and must be taken into account.

The Health and Social Care Board in Northern Ireland did not pause local resolution of complaints during the initial phase of the pandemic, but asked service users for patience and understanding, recognising that the challenges of the pandemic were likely to make it difficult for dental providers to meet the complaints procedures' timescales. This request for patience and understanding still applies as these unprecedented times continue.

The Health and Social Care Board has also made it clear that while the pandemic continues, complaints relating solely to actions taken as a consequence of the pandemic will not be investigated within the complaints procedure.

These concerns will not be ignored, as the Board has agreed with HSC trusts and practices that complaints of this nature will be screened on receipt and the format of response agreed and explained - but outside the formal procedure.

Ombudsmen

Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO)

Recognising the additional pressure on the delivery of NHS services in England caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, on 26 March the PHSO paused work on existing complaints and on acceptance of new complaints. On 1 July the PHSO began to progress existing complaints and to accept new ones.

The PHSO also extended the time limit, in order to accept complaints that would have been made between 26 March and 30 June. Complainants whose complaints would otherwise have exceeded the 12-month time limit were given to 1 September to make the complaint.

The PHSO recognises that continued pressures on the NHS and a likely increase in numbers of complaints may continue to affect their response times and promises regular updates on its webpage.

The PHSO website also provides advice for those who are responding to complaints as the pandemic continues. This makes it clear the PHSO will continue to take a flexible approach on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the pressure on resources caused by coronavirus. There is also an undertaking; "Where organisations have clear reasons for needing a delay or an extension to a deadline we have been agreeing this and will continue to do so."

We continue to assist members with responses to PHSO complaints and will keep you updated if there are any further changes to the PHSO's procedure during the year.

Scottish Public Services Ombudsman

Throughout the initial stages of the pandemic, the SPSO continued to respond to existing and new complaints while making it clear on the website that the work it is able to do will be limited for the foreseeable future.

The SPSO publishes specific advice for public service organisations, and has also published an FAQ booklet for those responsible for responding to complaints. The ombudsman continues to prioritise work to identify, "complaints that relate directly to current service provision for vulnerable people, and those where we believe there is a real and present risk to public health and safety."

These complaints are progressed as a priority, though the ombudsman's office expects to have to contact an NHS body only exceptionally about such cases. Recognising that NHS bodies remain under considerable pressure, the ombudsman adds, "…we hope you will appreciate that if we make contact it is due to the urgent nature of the case and so would greatly appreciate your support in such instances."

The SPSO will continue to progress all other complaints as far as possible given the changing circumstances created by COVID-19, reminding NHS organisations that the SPSO's model complaints handling procedure allows for timescales to be extended wherever necessary. We will let members know if there are any changes as a result of the continuing pandemic.

Public Services Ombudsman for Wales

The Public Services Ombudsman for Wales did not pause the ombudsman's complaints service. In March, the ombudsman gave an undertaking not to add to the pressures on those providing health services and to take full account of the effect of the pandemic on the NHS in assessing and investigating complaints. Complainants were also asked to consider the additional challenges the NHS was facing as a result of the pandemic when using the ombudsman's service.

Service providers were encouraged to set realistic timescales for responses and reminded they could extend timescales in exceptional circumstances. They were also advised that, "Where possible, you may wish to add automatic responses to email inboxes (reducing the demand for you to reply manually) and explain when complainants can realistically expect a response. Further information will be given as the situation develops." This advice still stands.

Further advice published on 28 April made it clear that, in view of the pressures on the NHS, the ombudsman was discouraging the submission of minor complaints to the NHS and the ombudsman; "If there is a legitimate complaint but the matter is minor or trivial with limited personal impact, we will not take it forward. Likewise in relation to Code of Conduct complaints we will be strictly applying our 'public interest test' to ensure that we investigate only serious matters."

The ombudsman promises to provide updates if the situation changes, and again, we will keep members updated.

Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman

The ombudsman continued to respond to complaints throughout the initial stages of the pandemic, stating its support to public bodies and recognising that their priorities must be to minimise the health risks posed by the coronavirus and to continue to provide essential services.

The ombudsman staff continue to prioritise existing casework and to consider how best to deal with new cases in the current circumstances. They remain aware they need to respond flexibly, especially in circumstances where their enquiries of public bodies have the potential to create difficulties or unreasonable pressure.

We will let members know if there are any changes to the ombudsman's approach to complaints.

This page was correct at publication on 25/09/2020. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

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