By Chris York
Violent attacks against NHS workers has risen to its highest level in five years, the latest staff survey shows.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has announced a “zero tolerance” approach will be adopted in response to data that reveals almost one in eight health professionals experienced violence in the last year.
He said it was “unacceptable” health workers had been subjected to aggression as he set out the first NHS Violence Reduction Strategy, series of measures to protect workers in England.
It sets out how NHS staff will be better protected against deliberate attacks and abuse from patients, their families and the public.
A new partnership between the NHS, police and Crown Prosecution Service will lead to offenders being prosecuted quickly under a zero-tolerance approach, the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) said.
The Care Quality Commission (CQC) will scrutinise trusts based on their plans to reduce violence against staff. Those that need further help to protect their employees will be identified.
The department said the most recent NHS staff survey showed 15% of its employees experienced violence in the last year – the highest figure for five years.
In a speech to the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), Mr Hancock will set out how the NHS will work with the criminal justice system to make sure victims are supported to give evidence and achieve prosecutions in the quickest and most seamless way possible.
Staff will be provided with better training to deal with a violent situation, including challenging circumstances involving patients with dementia or mental health issues.
Victims will also be given prompt mental health support, he will add.
A new system will be introduced so staff can record assaults or other incidents of abuse or harassment.
Trusts will be expected to investigate each incident to ensure lessons are learned and staff are protected in the future.
National data on reported violence against staff will also be analysed so health officials can identify which staff are most vulnerable to attacks.
“NHS staff dedicate their lives to protecting and caring for us in our times of greatest need and for any one of them to be subject to aggression or violence is completely unacceptable,” Mr Hancock is expected to say.
“I have made it my personal mission to ensure NHS staff feel safe and secure at work and the new violence reduction strategy will be a key strand of that.”
In some cases prosecutions may not be appropriate, such as when assaults are carried out by patients with dementia, brain injuries or mental health problems.
The DHSC said training in de-escalation and conflict resolution will be assessed to ensure it is up to date and effective, with improvements made where necessary.
The plans follow the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act, which called for the maximum prison sentence for assaulting an emergency worker to double from six months to a year.
The Association of Ambulance Chief Executives welcomed action to tackle the “violence that many NHS staff, including ambulance crews, endure on a daily basis”.
“It is a sad fact that almost none of the perpetrators receive custodial sentences when they are prosecuted for assaulting our staff,” the association’s managing director Martin Flaherty said.
“Therefore, we hope that the closer working links between the NHS, police and the CPS described by the Secretary of State today will help directly address this situation, ideally with the Ministry of Justice directing courts to be much tougher when sentencing those found guilty of assaulting and threatening our staff, prosecuting those people to the full extent of the law and actually imposing custodial sentences upon them.”
Sara Gorton, head of health at the union Unison, said: “No-one should be abused, threatened or attacked at work – especially when all they’re trying to do is help people.
“Anyone who threatens or abuses NHS staff should be prosecuted under to the new law protecting health care workers.”
Kim Sunley, national officer for the Royal College of Nursing, said: “Nurses and health care workers understand their roles aren’t risk-free but, to many, it still seems as if the threat of physical violence is a daily reality.
“These measures are another way to change this for good by increasing the accountability of employers for the safety of their staff and ensuring those who wilfully assault healthcare workers feel the full force of the law.”
Dr Taj Hassan, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, welcomed the initiative, saying: “Patients – and their families – coming into the Emergency Departments are often experiencing the worst day of their lives; worried, confused and often frustrated.
“This can be understandable. What is unacceptable though is when this spills over into violence.
“Staff always seek to give the best care possible in a hugely pressurised environment – it is always wrong to lash out at those trying to help.”