COVID-19 and involuntary detention – An emergency medicine or emergency management responsibility?

First published: 04 January 2022
This article has been accepted for publication and undergone full peer review but has not been through the copyediting, typesetting, pagination and proofreading process, which may lead to differences between this version and the Version of Record. Please cite this article as doi: 10.1111/emm.13932.


The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown up innumerable challenges throughout the world, especially evident in the healthcare system. In emergency medicine, there is a new urgency around the clinical and ethical dilemmas clinicians face as they make decisions that impact upon the lives of their patients. Emergency clinicians are accustomed to upholding duty of care and acting in the best interests of patients. Clinical judgements are made every day about a patient’s capacity to make their own decisions and act with free will.

It is foreseeable that a duty of care owed to a patient may be in conflict with the responsibility to the health and safety of a community. What is particularly fraught for clinicians is the lack of clarity around this potential duty of care to the community, and navigating the potential conflict with duty of care to the patient. How much danger does the community need to be in, and how definable, imminent and specific does that risk need to be? An attempt to protect the community may well constitute either a breach of confidentiality or a breach of duty of care.

This paper will explore the complex issues of respect for autonomy and the principle of non-maleficence, in the setting of COVID-19 and public health orders and illustrate the uncomfortable uncertainty that exists surrounding care of some of the most vulnerable patients in the community when their actions are contrary to public health recommendations.

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