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Covid-19 – Inquests and changes to reporting and recording deaths

At the time of writing there have sadly been 14 deaths in Jersey associated with Covid-19.  The Covid-19 pandemic presents a number of challenges for Courts including the Deputy Viscount who has the function of the Coroner in Jersey.

In a direct response to the pandemic the Deputy Viscount has provided updated guidance concerning the recoding of deaths.  Covid-19 is now an acceptable direct or underlying cause of death for the purposes of completing a Medical Certificate of Fact or Cause of Death (“MCFCD”).  As Covid-19 is a naturally occurring disease it is therefore capable of being a natural cause of death and therefore it would not ordinarily attract the requirement for an inquest.

However, the Deputy Viscount has clarified that the recording of “Probable Covid-19” or “Possible Covid -19” as a cause is not acceptable and would only be accepted when accompanied by an acceptable primary cause of death for example “pneumonia due to probable Covid-19”.  For a death to be recorded as solely caused by Covid-19 alone, a laboratory confirmation of the presence of the virus is required.

Currently, all deaths recorded by the States of Jersey statistics include deaths where Covid-19 was both the primary and secondary cause of death.

On 24th March 2020 the Cremation (Suspension and Modification of Regulations – Covid 19) (Jersey) Regulations 2020, introduced amendments to the Cremation (Jersey) Regulations 1961.  Consequently, there is now no longer a requirement for a second independent doctor to complete a cremation certificate for the temporary period of the pandemic.

Furthermore, under the Marriage and Civil Status (Amendment of Law No.2) (Covid-19 Temporary Amendments) (Jersey) Regulations 2020, the time before death in which a patient should have seen a doctor in order to be able to issue a MCFCD without referring to Deputy Viscount has been extended from 14 days to 28 days.

As a further protection to ensure deaths are recorded accurately and in accordance with guidance a team of 5 doctors have been trained to carry out the function of certifying all deaths in the community.  Previously, the certifying doctor was required to have attended the deceased patient during life, this requirement has now also been suspended.

Despite the new Regulations, some deaths still need to be automatically referred to the Deputy Viscount whether Covid-19 positive or not.  These include all suspicious deaths along with all deaths in prison, police custody and any patients in the care of the hospital under the Mental Health Law.

With regard to the Deputy Viscount undertaking formal inquests during the pandemic, further guidance is awaited.  Inquests are public hearings and ordinarily require several witnesses.  The requirement to maintain social distancing would present challenges to the Deputy Viscount when conducting hearings.  Current Court guidelines have restricted Court business to urgent and essential matters.  It is doubtful an inquest would fall within this category and it is likely the Deputy Viscount will follow the approach of UK Coroners and adjourn inquests pending the subsidence of the pandemic.

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