Blog | Coronavirus and temporary changes to the Mental Health Act

2nd April 2020

In our latest blog, Suzanne Martin, Senior Public Affairs Officer at SAMH, explores what new temporary changes to the Mental Health Act mean.

Sometimes people’s mental health deteriorates to a point where they are given care and treatment on a compulsory basis: potentially against their will. The Mental Health  (Care and Treatment) (Scotland) Act 2003 allows for this to happen and also includes important safeguards and principles to make sure that people aren’t taken to hospital or given care and treatment when this isn’t in their best interests.

During the coronavirus pandemic, at a time when the NHS will be under significant pressure, it is possible that there won’t be enough staff to meet the normal safeguarding measures. That is why the Scottish and UK Governments are introducing temporary flexibilities in how the normal safeguards are used.

While we understand the need for these temporary flexibilities during the coronavirus pandemic, it will mean that people’s rights are undermined to a greater extent than would normally be the case. That is why SAMH has been working with the Scottish Government, to ensure that the flexibilities are only used as a last resort and with the aim of supporting people to get the care and treatment they need.

SAMH campaigned for many of the safeguards in the Mental Health Act and is committed to defending the rights of people with mental health problems. That’s why we are calling for the Scottish Government to establish an Oversight Group with the Mental Welfare Commission. This Group would ensure that the flexibilities can only start being used when absolutely necessary and are removed at the earliest opportunity. It is crucial that these changes are only temporary and that the normal safeguards are restored as soon as possible.

There are a range of different flexibilities being introduced, which will mean:

  • Fewer healthcare professionals need to be involved in decisions about someone’s care and treatment
  • People can be kept in hospital for longer if required
  • Tribunal hearings, where people can challenge a decision about their care and treatment, do not have to take place in person, instead written submissions can be made
  • People in prison who need treatment might need to wait longer than normal for transfer to hospital
  • People who are accused of an offence might need to wait longer than normal before being assessed for a mental health problem
  • People’s care and treatment will be reviewed where required and where there is a need for change, but not as a mandatory procedure

SAMH is also emphasising the importance of the Millan Principles at this time. The Mental Health Act in Scotland includes 10 principles – the Millan Principles – which outline how people should be treated when they are receiving care and treatment for their mental health. These principles help to protect people’s human rights when they require care and treatment without giving their consent. Because the temporary flexibilities in the Mental Health Act afford people less protection than the normal safeguarding measures, it is more important than ever that mental health professionals uphold the Millan Principles.

If you have any questions about the flexibilities or need some advice because you or someone you know is being treated under the Mental Health Act, you can contact the Mental Welfare Commission’s advice line on 0800 389 6809 or at The advice line is open between 10am to noon and 2pm to 4pm.