Coroner: NHS worker’s Covid death ‘inadvertent’ - not systemic failure

Nick Kenton and Tania Woolcock, the nephew and daughter of NHS frontline worker Mark Woolcock

Nick Kenton and Tania Woolcock, the nephew and daughter of NHS frontline worker Mark Woolcock, outside Barking Town Hall in east London - Credit: PA

Appropriate procedures were in place to ensure an NHS employee who died from Covid-19 was kept safe before his death, a coroner has concluded.

Stratford man Mark Woolcock died on April 20, 2020, at the Newham University Hospital in Plaistow where he had worked for over 17 years.

Mr Woolcock had spent the better part of two decades discharging patients and moving them to their homes or care homes in an ambulance.

An inquest into his death - held at Barking Town Hall - concluded on Friday (March 25).

On his last shift, overnight on March 22, 2020, Mr Woolcock transported a patient he later believed was positive for Covid-19.

He made the journey from A&E to their home wearing his own personal protective equipment (PPE).

Coroners previously heard that Mr Woolcock felt unsafe at work and was worried about being exposed to the virus without adequate PPE.

Mark Woolcock who died from COVID-19 on 20 April 2020 at Newham University Hospital

Mark Woolcock who died from COVID-19 on 20 April 2020 at Newham University Hospital, following suspected exposure to COVID-19 patients whilst he was working for Barts Health NHS Trust as an ambulance care assistant - Credit: PA

After hearing the entirety of the evidence, HM assistant coroner for London East, Ian Wade QC, exonerated the Barts Health NHS Trust which runs the hospital.

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“I am satisfied there were systems in place, appropriate to the circumstances, which ensured Covid-positive patients were not knowingly transported by Mark," said Mr Wade.

“The trust did not knowingly allow Covid to transmit to him as a staff member in his place of work.”

The coroner added: “I am satisfied there was a suitable system in place to protect Mark.”

He accepted that while it was possible that the worker could have contracted Covid from a patient he transported, it was not due to “the absence of or an inadequacy of a system in place”.

How Mr Woolcock caught the virus remains unclear, it was decided.

His daughter described herself as “distraught” with the outcome.

Tania Woolcock said: "I don’t feel we’ve been given justice.

“I’ve left this process feeling there’s been unheard evidence.

“My father is a hero, he never refused a job, he was willing to work, the hospital saw my dad more than we did.

“That speaks for his character and caring nature.”

Nephew Nick Kenton said: “It hasn’t sunk in yet; we’re lost."

Mr Kenton said the verdict feels like a "total contradiction" when assessed against the evidence heard. 

“We’re shocked and very disappointed," he added.

Mr Wade commended members of Mr Woolcock's family who attended the inquest, saying their conduct ensured his “sacrifice is not wasted”.

Cara Guthrie, representing Barts Health, argued that Mr Woolcock first developed symptoms around March 23.

This suggested that his final shift the evening before was “unlikely to be a probable cause of infection”.

She went on: “There wasn’t a great deal known about the virus at that time; droplet transmission and aerosol transmission was not yet known.

“Furthermore there was a national shortage of PPE which meant it was restricted in circumstances in which it was really needed.”

Adam Wagner, counsel to Mr Woolcock’s family, said it was not obvious where non-confirmed Covid patients should go after their release from hospital, increasing the risk of the workers contracting the virus.

He added: “Given the early stage and that more about the virus would come to light, the appropriate system would have been that patients with any of the three Covid symptoms should not have been going into non-emergency patient transport service (NEPTS) vehicles.”

The Barts Health NHS Trust investigated Mr Woolcock’s death, as did the Health and Safety Executive.

Mr Woolcock developed coronavirus symptoms within days of his final shift.

These progressively worsened to the point that the Stratford man was struggling to breathe by the time he was admitted to hospital on April 3. 

He died 17 days later.

A spokesperson for Barts Health said: “At the time, we were following national guidance on a new disease, which evolved during the pandemic, and which we followed closely to protect our staff.”