In a new consultation document Pandemic Influenza and the Mental Health Act 1983 which can be accessed here, the Department of Health put forward proposals designed to allow one medical professional to be able to forcibly detain patients under the Act in light of fears of medical staff shortages during a second incidence of the swine flu pandemic.

The changes would enable departure from the current legislation which requires two medical recommendations made by two qualified medical practitioners, one of whom must be approved for the purpose under the Act.

The new measure would thus enable a single doctor to be able to section individuals and forcibly provide medication to those patients who have been in hospital for three months or more. The proposed contingency measures would be permissive, giving people operating the Act additional flexibility to make decisions whilst allowing the usual procedures under the Act to be followed wherever possible.

The Department of Health states that the measures are designed to ensure that mental health professionals can continue to operate under the provisions of the Act “in the best interests of the health and safety of patients and for the protection of others in these unexpected circumstances”. Sir Liam Donaldson has said that the temporary changes were to maintain levels of care while protecting the rights and safety of the public.

The emergency timescale envisaged by the Department of Health means that the consultation period does not adhere to the usual minimum of 12 weeks. The consultation runs until Wednesday 7 October 2009.