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Attacks on nurses increase as shortages create ‘hostile environment’

Research shows assaults have risen nearly 10%, with trusts facing financial difficulties most at risk

Research shows assaults have risen nearly 10%, with trusts facing financial difficulties most at risk


Picture: Neil O'Connor

Physical assaults on health workers including nurses and ambulance crews have increased as staff shortages create a 'hostile' environment, a study shows.

Research for Unison revealed a near 10% rise in assaults on staff in England last year, with a 21% increase in hospitals with an emergency department.

There were 56,435 assaults in 2016-17 compared with 51,447 the previous year in the NHS trusts which responded to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.

Trusts treating fewer patients within 18 weeks of referral saw the biggest increase in assaults, as did those struggling with financial deficits.

Desperate situation

Unison head of health Sara Gorton said: 'Across the entire NHS, staff shortages are harming patient care and helping to create a hostile environment where health workers are increasingly at risk of being assaulted.

'It's no accident that trusts where the pressures seem the most extreme –where there are huge financial deficits or where it's a struggle to meet growing demands on services – have seen the steepest rise in the number of attacks. This desperate situation is only set to worsen as the squeeze on resources gets tighter.’

Ms Gorton added: 'Now that there is no NHS or government organisation collecting data on assaults nationally, the picture is growing increasingly unclear. The safety of staff, who care for us when we are sick or injured, and their patients should be paramount.'

Regular abuse

Unison gave details of a number of incidents, including a healthcare assistant on an orthopaedics ward where a patient with mental health issues shut the door of his room, grabbed her by the arm, put her in a headlock and would not let go.

A registered nurse said that staffing pressures are making the situation worse, revealing regular abuse. She has been slapped by patients and recently saw a colleague punched in the face.

NHS employers should have no hesitation in involving the police if their staff are subject to aggression or violence

Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson

A male nurse in an acute admissions unit witnessed a colleague being threatened with a knife, saw a patient throw a chair through a window, another threatening staff trying to prevent him from smoking on the ward, and said that he has regularly been scratched and bitten by dementia patients.

High-pressure environment

A NHS England spokesperson said: 'It is completely unacceptable that a nurse, paramedic, porter or any member of NHS staff should be assaulted, physically or verbally, as they care for patients.

'NHS England continues to work with trusts and any of our staff affected, to help the police and other authorities do everything needed when an assault takes place.'

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: 'NHS staff work incredibly hard in a high-pressure environment and it is completely unacceptable for them to be subject to aggression or violence.

'We are making crucial legal changes to ensure those who are violent face the full force of the law and NHS employers should have no hesitation in involving the police if their staff are subject to aggression or violence.'

An investigation by Nursing Standard last month showed how 1,544 lone nursing staff were the subject of assaults in the community between 2015-17.

The data was gathered in a FOI submitted by Health Service Journal magazine on behalf of Unison.


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