A surgeon who may have infected two new mothers with herpes has been granted anonymity during the inquests into their deaths in an "unprecedented" ruling.
Coroner Catherine Wood said she made the decision because the surgeon's "apprehension" about being named when he stands as a witness would "likely impede his evidence in court" and affect his health.
Mid Kent and Medway Coroners is investigating the cases of Kimberly Sampson, 29, and Samantha Mulcahy, 32, who both died in 2018 after the same obstetrician conducted their caesareans. They were treated 6 weeks apart in hospitals run by East Kent Hospitals University NHS Trust (EKHUT).
On February 26 – the day before the inquest was due to begin and 16 months after it was first announced – EKHUT made a last-minute bid for anonymity covering the surgeon and a midwife also involved in both cases. The trust said they should not be named unless the inquest concluded they had passed on the infection, because of the "reputational damage" they would suffer, and because the surgeon's health was already being impacted by reports.
'Unprecedented' Decision Due to Effect on Surgeon's Health
On Tuesday, Ms Wood ruled that the midwife can be named when they appear as a witness because the trust had not provided any "supporting evidence" against this, but the surgeon must be anonymous in reports. Outlining her decision in the surgeon’s case, she said: "It is likely that his apprehension about being named may not just affect his health but may also impact upon the way he gives his evidence to the court.
"I consider in the circumstances that it would likely impede his evidence and this is clearly a highly relevant factor for me to consider."
She added: "There is no evidence before the court at this early stage that the care the obstetrician provided is of concern.
"Here the obstetrician has conducted a procedure on two young mothers about 6 weeks apart and there is no evidence to suggest any criminality likely to require public scrutiny and discussion such that naming him would be essential…
"I have cogent reasons on balance to depart from the exceptionally important principle of open justice, given the real possibility of harm to this witness and the way it may alter the evidence he gives to my inquiry into these young mothers’ deaths."
Ms Wood added that she had balanced the surgeon's Article 8 right to "respect for private and family life" outlined in the European Convention on Human Rights, to the media’s Article 10 rights to "freedom of expression". She added that the order would be "reconsidered at the end of the evidence" in light of the inquest's conclusion.
This comes despite strong opposition against the anonymity application by both the press and the families' lawyers, who said the delay had caused their bereaved husbands and relatives more "pain and grief".
The coroner acknowledged this along with the fact that the families' lawyers had previously said granting anonymity in the case would be "unprecedented".
"Counsel for the families say that the very fact that two mothers died within six weeks of each other is a matter for public concern and that to grant the order would be an unprecedented expansion of the law as it currently stands," she said.
Ms Sampson died in May 2018 after giving birth at the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Hospital (QEQM) in Margate, and Ms Mulcahy died in July 2018 at the William Harvey Hospital in Ashford, both in Kent.
The full inquest into their deaths will be held in April.
This article contains information from PA Media