18th April 2024: HXR doctors protest over General Medical Council’s climate inaction

Posted by: Hils - Posted on:

On 18th April HXR Doctors joined other doctors from the Planetary Health Coalition and members of the public to demonstrate outside the General Medical Council (GMC), the body that regulates and sets standards for doctors in order to keep patients safe. They were protesting about the GMC’s lack of leadership over climate change’s dangerous implications for public health.

Together they staged a mock ‘moral injury unit’ outside the GMC. Members of the public, representing patients, carried placards depicting the various health impacts of climate change in the UK and calling for patients to be protected.

Doctors presented complaints about their difficulties as clinicians witnessing the effects of climate emergency, whilst those in positions of power appear not to grasp the urgency of the unfolding crisis.

Dr Hilary Neve, GP and Honorary Professor at the University of Plymouth said: In the UK alone, we are already witnessing the health impacts of climate change  and the burning of fossil fuels. This includes 30,000 excess deaths each year due to air pollution,2 excess deaths from heat waves,3 increasing cases of  allergies and allergic asthma,4 malnutrition linked to crop failure and the rising cost of food 5, as well as the mental health consequences of global ecosystems collapse.6

The GMC sets out ethical standards for doctors and recently published updated guidance which included two additional duties relating to sustainability.

However, medic and ethicist Dr Rammina Yassaie said “Whilst including sustainability into doctors’ ethical standards is welcome, the added duties are described as optional, suggesting net zero healthcare can be achieved through voluntary progress alone. There seems to be a failure to truly appreciate the global harms caused by high-emission healthcare as well as the health benefits of meaningful climate action. We believe practising climate-conscious medicine should be a clear duty of a doctor, and that the GMC has a responsibility to embed this more clearly into medical standards.”

The protestors also highlighted GMC’s pension fund and other investments which exclude coal and tar sands extraction but not all oil and gas. The GMC banks with RBS, part of the NatWest group, who remain financiers of fossil fuel projects.8

Southampton GP Dr Christelle Blunden wrote an open letter to the GMC signed by over 300 doctors calling for full divestment, but without success. “Those who set the ethical compass for our profession should be leading by example” she said.

The protest took place on the same day that a Medical Practitioner’s Tribunal found the fitness to practice of Dr Sarah Benn, a GP from Birmingham, was impaired due to misconduct. She is the first doctor to face a tribunal because of her involvement with non-violent direct action on the climate, in this case holding a placard on a verge and sitting down in the road at the premises of an oil company who had a special injunction barring protest. Dr Benn was subsequently given a prison sentence for this.

Dr Benn said as a doctor, she had a moral duty to take action to protect life and health and that the climate emergency was a health emergency which was “happening now”. The GMC’s Good Medical Practice standards require doctors to “protect and promote the health of patients and the public” and to “act promptly” if they “think that patient safety may be seriously compromised”.

New laws introduced since 2021 have significantly narrowed the legal space for protest in the UK, leaving many concerned health workers at greater risk of prosecution. Meanwhile, judicial decisions made over the same period have limited legal defences available, making it hard for protestors to defend themselves. Such restrictions on protest were recently condemned by the UN special rapporteur on Environmental Defenders, including sanctions placed on UK medical doctors who risk losing their licence simply for participating in peaceful environmental protest.


  1. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/6570a68b7469300012488948/HECC-report-2023-chapter-4-outdoor-air-quality.pdf
  2. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/articles/excessmortalityduringheatperiods/englandandwales1juneto31august2022 
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9606573 
  4. https://eciu.net/analysis/reports/2023/climate-fossil-fuels-and-uk-food-prices-2023
  5. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/articles/threequartersofadultsingreatbritainworryaboutclimatechange/2021-11-05 
  6. https://www.ellaroberta.org/campaigns/inquest-coroners-report
  7. https://www.banktrack.org/bank/natwest
  8. https://unece.org/sites/default/files/2024-02/UNSR_EnvDefenders_Aarhus_Position_Paper_Civil_Disobedience_EN