Doctors and nurses found guilty of “wilful neglect” of patients could face jail, the government is proposing.
Wilful neglect will be made a criminal offence under NHS changes to be unveiled next week following the Mid Staffordshire and other care scandals.
The offence will be modelled on one punishable by up to five years in prison under the Mental Capacity Act.
Doctors’ leaders said the threat of criminal sanctions could create a climate of fear in the NHS.
The government’s proposals are due to be unveiled next week.
Prime Minister David Cameron said health workers who mistreated and abused patients would face “the full force of the law” in a package of measures.
A consultation on what scale of sentence should be applied to the extended law will be carried out over the next few months by the Department of Health.
Downing Street said the proposals would apply to health workers throughout the UK because it would be a change to criminal law which is not affected by the devolution of health services.
The move was one of the central recommendations of a review of patient safety commissioned by ministers after findings that hundreds suffered unacceptable treatment at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust.
It was led by Professor Don Berwick, a former adviser to US president Barack Obama, who said the measure was needed to target the worst cases of a “couldn’t care less” attitude that led to “wilful or reckless neglect or mistreatment”.
Mr Cameron said: “The NHS is full of brilliant doctors, nurses and other health workers who dedicate their lives to caring for our loved ones.
“But Mid-Staffordshire hospital showed that sometimes the standard of care is not good enough. That is why we have taken a number of different steps that will improve patient care and improve how we spot bad practice.
“Never again will we allow substandard care, cruelty or neglect to go unnoticed”.
The British Medical Association (BMA) said the move could make it more difficult for doctors and nurses to speak out against their colleagues if they thought they would go to jail as a result.
Dr Andrew Collier, co-chairman of the BMA’s junior doctors’ committee said doctors who failed to meet certain standards needed support and help.
“They don’t need this new climate of fear. They don’t need to be concerned that they may be sent to jail. What they need to do is learn from their mistakes and develop their practice,” he told BBC Breakfast.
He called the move a “headline-grabbing exercise” and said it did not address the other recommendations made by Prof Berwick, such as minimum staffing levels and changes in the culture.
Dr Maureen Baker, the new chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said the best way of ensuring the problem did not arise was having professional safeguards and support in place.
“Doctors, nurses – we are human. Human beings make mistakes. You can’t change the human condition, but you can help support the humans in having systems around them that help keep them safe, caring and compassionate,” she said.
Peter Carter, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said a law change on its own was “not a panacea”.
He added that legally enforced staffing levels would have a far greater impact on patient care, as they had in Australia and California.
But Julie Bailey, who founded pressure group Cure the NHS to expose failings at Stafford Hospital following her mother’s death there, welcomed the government’s proposal, saying: “Now it’s time for patients’ safety to be a priority.”