People are allowed to leave their homes to travel abroad for assisted dying purposes during the second lockdown in England, the Health Secretary has said.
Conservative Andrew Mitchell, a former cabinet minister, asked an urgent question in the Commons on the subject and said he was worried the lockdown “could deter” people from making such a journey.
Responding, Mr Hancock told MPs: “The new coronavirus regulations which come into force today place restrictions on leaving the home without a reasonable excuse.
“Travelling abroad for the purpose of assisted dying is a reasonable excuse and so anyone doing so would not be breaking the law.”
Mr Hancock added: “The question of how we best support people in their choices at the end of their life is a complex moral issue that, when considered, weighs heavily upon us all.”
He said the Covid-19 regulations do not change the “existing legal position on assisted dying” and said he wanted to set out the “precise position” regarding the current law.
He told MPs: “Under current law, based on the Suicide Act 1961, it is an offence to encourage or assist the death of another person.
“However, it is legal to travel abroad for the purpose of assisted dying where it is allowed in that jurisdiction.”
The pandemic has made how we care for people at the end of their lives “a central issue of public debate”, Mr Hancock said.
He added: “We of course do acknowledge the changing views of many, including many in the medical profession, and of course we observe the changes and the international debate that is taking place.
“I think it is absolutely reasonable for this House to have a conversation and a discussion on what is an important topic.
“And I think it is right that we locate this question within a broader discussion of how we care for people at the end of their lives which has become sadly – due to the coronavirus pandemic – a central issue of public debate in this country.”
He continued: “As this is a matter of conscience, the Government does not take a position. It is instead a matter for each and every MP to speak on and vote according to their sincerely held beliefs and it is for the will of this House to decide whether the law should change.”
Labour MP Karin Smyth (Bristol South) said it is time to recognise that the law is “not compassionate” and is “not safe”.
She said: “There is an assumption that the law is currently safe but it is not. In June, here in London, we know of a man who did throw himself in front of an HGV on the North Circular (road) suffering from throat cancer. He knew his tumour would continue to strangle him. He could not bear it.
“He took his own life because this country denies him the option of choosing the timing and manner of his death. I appreciate that this is a sensitive and difficult issue. But is it not time that we do recognise the law is not compassionate, it is not safe currently and it is leaving behind bereaved families and members of the public due to an absence of a safeguarded choice at the end of life?”
Mr Hancock responded: “(Ms Smyth) draws attention to a distinction between those who are in a position of being in a terrible illness and the broader issue of suicide. I think that distinction is an important part of this debate and I respect her sincerely held views.”
Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) said: “I think it’s very difficult to tell somebody who is in pain and suffering and who wants to die that the state is going to prevent them from doing that. As a Roman Catholic, I have recently changed my mind on this issue because of my constituent Mr Noel Conway from Garmston who lives near Shrewsbury.
“I said to him, ‘why don’t you go to Switzerland?’ And his answer will stay with me forever: ‘No, I’m an Englishman, I want to die in England.’ And I think it’s extremely important that our citizens have this right.”
Conservative MP Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) asked Mr Hancock to reveal his personal view on assisted dying.
But Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle intervened to say: “I’ll be quite honest I don’t want to enter into personal arguments as I’m not giving mine and I don’t think it’s right to put the Secretary of the State on the spot in that way.”