Dr Sarah Benn suspended for ‘Serious Professional Misconduct’ for peaceful climate protest: HXR Statement

Posted by: Hils - Posted on:

Dr Sarah Benn’s Medical Practioner’s Tribunal delivered its verdict on 18th April 2024, just hours after members of the Planetary Health coalition protested outside the General Medical Council full committee meeting in London to demand that they show leadership on the climate and health emergency. 

Dr Benn, a GP with over 30 years NHS service, is the first doctor to face a tribunal due to climate action, and was referred for disciplinary proceedings after being imprisoned for 32 days for breaking a private injunction by holding a sign outside an oil refinery. More information on the background and circumstances of this ruling can be found by following this link – shorturl.at/evxOW 

The decision, made after a three days hearing, has caused widespread shock and disgust within the medical community. A patient petition in support of doctors like Sarah, who feel morally compelled to protect public health by demanding action on the climate and ecological crisis, is receiving widespread support. 

On 23rd April the Tribunal suspended Dr Benn’s registration for 5 months. The GMC’s twitter post stated that “our fitness to practise investigations consider cases which are referred to us and where doctors have broken the law, not their motivations for doing so”.

Health for Extinction Rebellion, founded in September 2019 to organise health workers in support of non-violent direct climate action, has issued the following statement in response to the decision:

HXR Statement

“Our political, legal and professional establishment are failing to provide the leadership and action required to prevent the unimaginable suffering that the climate and ecological crisis will increasingly cause. This moral vacuum has created a dilemma for all health professionals whose responsibilities, mandated by the GMC, dictate that they act promptly when patient safety is at risk. These responsibilities align to those of the General Medical Council (GMC) themselves whose overarching objective is “to protect the public”.  

However, it is now clear that the GMC believes its role in the Climate and Health Emergency is to discipline those whistleblowing doctors who feel morally compelled to participate in non-violent protest to protect their patients. Expecting doctors to protect patient safety, except for when patient safety is threatened by the climate and ecological crisis, is perverse and shameful. 

The General Medical Council is not only failing in its legal and ethical duty to protect patients in the climate and health emergency, but is also failing doctors who will increasingly be required to manage the health consequences of this inaction. 

Evidence indicates that non-violent disruptive protest can be effective in supporting social and political change, with medical activism (including illegal action) having a long, proud and often successful history in promoting patient and population health. 

Our protest outside the GMC’s committee meeting this week comes after repeated attempts to engage the organisation in its responsibilities as they pertain to the crisis. That they should so blatantly renege on their responsibilities and yet feel competent to pass judgements, such as that delivered this week to Sarah, is both arrogant and deeply concerning. 

We call on all health professionals and patients to stand with Sarah and the climate activists who will follow her. #WeAreAllSarahBenn

To the General Medical Council we say: If you cannot both acknowledge and integrate the grave health and moral implications of the climate and ecological crisis into your proceedings, you are not fit for purpose”.

1] Chenoweth E, Stephan MJ. Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict. Columbia University Press; 2011.

[2] Sorry for the Inconvenience But This Is an Emergency. The Nonviolent Struggle for Our Planet’s Future, Lynne Jones Hurst 2024, pp190-191

[3] Podolsky S, Jones D. Medical activists as agents of change. bmj. 2022 Dec 22;379.

Support for Sarah, and dismay at the decision, has been voiced by numerous other health professionals and organisations including the following: 

“Whilst the GMC has a duty to refer doctors to a medical tribunal when they receive a custodial sentence, in some cases, such as this one, the doctor’s actions will have no bearing on their ability to practise medicine and will not pose a risk to patients, past or future…

“Dr Benn’s actions and her resulting custodial sentence posed no threat to patients, but her suspension implies they do. It is now time for the GMC and the medical profession to review the basis on which Dr Benn found herself in front of a medical tribunal.”

BMA Press Release, read it in full here

Many in the GMC must recognise that they are finding themselves on the wrong side of history. As UKHACC has pointed out to the chair and chief executive of the GMC, the Secretary General of the United Nations, the Pope, and the King have all expressed forcefully their anxiety that the world is heading to catastrophe because of damage to nature and the climate and that the responses by world leaders are inadequate…

…It is in these exceptional circumstances that doctors committed to public health have resorted to actions judged criminal. As with other activists like the suffragettes, history will support the minority who took direct action to raise awareness of the consequences of our unsustainable reliance on fossil fuels and be critical of the majority who either passively accepted the status quo or condemned the activists…

…UKHACC calls on the GMC to recognise its predicament and seek all possible ways—including if necessary changes to the Medical Act—to avoid removing the livelihood of doctors who are concerned and courageous enough to break what they see as immoral laws.

UK Health Alliance on Climate Change: read their full statement here

“We are hugely disappointed about the outcome of the hearing. As doctors, our role is to protect the health of patients now and in the future. Sarah’s actions were in keeping with her professional duty and proportionate to the threat we face. We hope that the GMC urgently reflect-upon, and reverse their decision, especially in view of the enormous support Sarah has from her colleagues”.

Dr Shireen Kassam on behalf of ‘Plant-Based Health Professionals’.

“Given the evidence on climate change and its health impacts, we strongly believe peaceful protest should not be viewed as condemnable professional misconduct – but as commendable public health advocacy.” … see full statement here and their reponse to her suspension here

Dr Mathew Lee on behalf of ‘Doctors Association UK’. 

“The GMC is an institution that has frequently found itself on the wrong side of history. They stand accused of mistreatment of racialised doctors, with UK graduate doctors from ethnic minorities found to be 50% more likely to get a sanction or warning than white doctors. An FOI request in 2019 showed that 29% of complaints against white doctors led to GMC investigations compared to 44% and 40% in the cases of Black and Asian doctors, respectively. This is particularly horrendous given the psychological toll of being under GMC investigation. Between 2018 and 2020, 29 doctors died while under GMC investigation or monitoring, with five cases confirmed as suicide.

Let’s not forget that up until the 1960s, the GMC struck off doctors for the crime of homosexuality. It serves as a reminder that the law is not always right, and at times needs to be resisted. The GMC recently apologised for this.

Dr Anthony Costello, a UCL professor, has called out influential people within the GMC and Royal Colleges for being “too worried about upsetting politicians and missing out on an honour in memory of the British Empire. So they don’t stand up for patients, public or the medical profession they represent”.

The reality is, whilst frontline doctors were being imprisoned for climate protest, the chair of the GMC was receiving his knighthood. The GMC has always propped up the establishment. This is problematic given the times that we live in, with rising authoritarianism, with those in power doing all they can to suppress peaceful protest, whilst failing dismally to take action on climate catastrophe.

The GMC has found Dr Sarah Benn guilty of professional misconduct. I have so much respect for Dr Benn – she is a deeply principled person who acted courageously, in line with the GMC’s own guidance to take action to protect public health. The GMC’s judgement demonstrates that they are, once again, on the wrong side of history.

The climate crisis has already claimed lives and we are on a trajectory towards untold suffering. Institutions like the GMC should be doing all they can to prevent this. I sincerely hope they will review the tribunal’s decision with urgency and publicly recognise that Dr Benn is exemplifying good medical practice in accordance with their own guidelines. We really can’t afford to wait for an apology in 50 years’ time”. 

Dr Amelia Cussans on behalf of the ‘Climate and Health Scorecard Initiative”.

“Instead of punishing principled professionals who raise the alarm, we urge the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service to reconsider its position in future climate activism cases, and not to remove the licences of doctors who take peaceful climate action. We also urge institutions like the GMC to advocate for the transformational climate action needed to mitigate mass loss of life, and to join in with other health organisations already doing so”

Lawyers are Responsible. Read full statement here

“Physiotherapy Declares are shocked and appalled at this decision by the GMC to judge action in the interests of public health as professional misconduct. The climate crisis is a health crisis and health professionals have an inherent duty to respond appropriately. We applaud the bravery of Dr Sarah Benn in her dedication to action on climate change and urge all health professional bodies to consider how history will view their response to the biggest health crisis of our lifetimes”.

Charlotte Francis on behalf of ‘Physiotherapy Declares’.

“This principled and courageous doctor has already put her own liberty on the line to raise the alarm on what is recognised to be the greatest threat to our health and survival. If she and others in the future lose their right to practise, who wins? Certainly not patients.”

Dr Fiona Godlee, Former editor of the BMJ.

“Dr Benn’s actions were based on evidence, both of the enormous threat to health from climate change and the effectiveness of non-violent protest. What is the GMC’s evidence base for silencing these voices?”. 

Dr Hayley Pinto, Consultant Psychiatrist

Dr Benn demonstrated courage and conviction in her determination to raise the alarm about the climate emergency. Whistleblowing about the greatest health threat of the 21st century must not be viewed as professional misconduct, and the GMC ought to reflect on its own legal and ethical responsibility to protect patient safety in the face of this great threat.” 

Dr Rammina Yassaie, Medical Doctor and Ethicist

“This shocking decision raises concerns that the GMC, whose main objective is to ‘protect patients’, does not appreciate the enormity and urgency of the climate and health emergency. Dr Benn acted with great moral courage and in accordance with her professional responsibilities and scientific evidence in order to protect patients. She did the right thing but has been punished for it”. 

Prof Hilary Neve, GP and Honorary Professor, Medical Education