NHS hospitals in England can no longer use virtual assessments to section people under the Mental Health Act, following a judge's ruling.
Developed last year, virtual assessments intend to bypass the issue of in-person evaluations occurring under COVID-19 restrictions.
Not only are professionals currently limited in the distance they can travel to carry out an assessment, the assessments themselves can occur in a person's home, police station or hospital, raising the likelihood of exposure to the virus.
This is a particularly prominent issue for more complex cases where up to 5 approved mental health professionals (AHMP) may be required in an inpatient facility per patient.
The virtual method reduces the number of professionals needed per patient to 2 who conduct their tests via a video link.
Early findings suggested that a smaller number of people present in the room during an assessment was preferred by patients who otherwise would have found evaluations under normal circumstances to be too stressful.
Despite the benefits of virtual assessments, a judge has now ruled their use in NHS hospitals in England to be unlawful.
The judgement was sought by the Devon NHS trust following guidance from the Department of Health and Social Care late last year that suggested the use of virtual assessments during the pandemic.
The trust asked for clarity around their use considering the Mental Health Act specifies that the patient being evaluated needs to be present in person during an assessment.
Professionals are also required at other points of the assessment process.
Initial government advice was to allow virtual assessments to be made, however, courts were left to decide the circumstances in which they could be used.
According to The Guardian, an email was immediately sent to mental health professionals across the country to “stop using remote methods for any new or ongoing assessments for detention or section renewals under Part II of the Act.”
For individuals already detained under the Mental Health Act using virtual methods, assessments should be conducted again "if ongoing detention if deemed necessary."
Steve Chamberlain, chair of the AHMP leads network, suggested that a "small but significant" number of remote assessments for detention had already been conducted.
“The big problem, I think, is health and safety," Chamberlain told The Guardian. "One of the issues is that with Mental Health Act assessments quite a few are done in places where social distancing is difficult.
"It remains a real issue around the pandemic and risk to service users and the risk of infection.”
Many mental health professionals had expressed concerns around the ethics of virtual assessments, added Chamberlain: “can you complete an adequate assessment given the enormity of the decision, essentially taking away someone’s liberty?”