Northern Ireland

Social media advice to NI health workers queried

Richard Pengelly
Image caption The Department of Health's permanent secretary, Richard Pengelly, is married to former DUP MLA Emma Little Pengelly

The chairman of Northern Ireland's BMA has sought legal advice over an email telling medical staff not to express political opinions on social media.

The email was sent to the chief executive of the five health trusts by the Department of Health's permanent secretary, Richard Pengelly.

It was sent before the assembly elections in March.

On Monday, a Department of Health spokesperson said Mr Pengelly would respond to the BMA "in due course".

In his original email, the permanent secretary - the department's most senior civil servant - said he was concerned about the "overtly political tweets from colleagues across the service".

Image copyright Courtesy of Sam McBride - News Letter
Image caption The email sent from Mr Pengelly to health chiefs at the time of the assembly elections

He added that this was "particularly relevant during the election".

It followed two tweets from doctors working in the health service which were critical of what they called the DUP and Sinn Féin's record of "failures" on health service delivery.

The permanent secretary is married to former DUP MLA Emma Little Pengelly, who is also standing in next month's general election.

'Inappropriate attempt'

In a letter seen by the BBC, the chairman of the BMA in Northern Ireland, Dr John Woods, said members had been concerned by what they saw as an inappropriate attempt to extend restrictions on what they could say in public into their private lives.

Image caption Dr Woods informed his members he had instructed a QC who was an expert in employment law

Dr Woods informed members said he had been advised by an expert in employment law that doctors using social media must follow their employer's employment policies; members were therefore advised to read the relevant policies before engaging in any social media activity.

Dr Woods added that it was, however, the QC's opinion that "it would be unlawful for Mr Pengelly or the chief executives of HSC trusts to seek to prevent clinical staff from, or to punish clinical staff for, expressing their political views on Twitter or any other form of social media in their time away from their work, so long as such 'tweets' do not transgress any contractual restrictions".

A number of senior doctors who spoke to the BBC said their Twitter accounts were personal and that they felt very strongly about being able to tweet their opinions and engage in public discussion.

One professional said some members of staff felt threatened by Mr Pengelly's letter.

In February, the Department of Health said that while staff were entitled to express personal opinions on social media, these must be "in line with the HSC code of conduct".

It is understood that the BMA is now awaiting a response to a letter it has sent to the permanent secretary.

A Department of Health spokesperson said: "The permanent secretary has received correspondence from the BMA which will be responded to in due course".

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