RCN raises doubts about proposed law designed to protect nurses

Power to seek blood or saliva samples from anyone who bites or spits at a nurse 'could make bad situations worse'.

Power to seek blood or saliva samples from anyone who bites or spits at a nurse 'could make bad situations worse'

The RCN has raised ethical and practical concerns about a proposal to make it an offence to fail to provide a blood sample in certain situations.

The powers are contained in draft legislation designed to protect emergency workers, such as nurses, paramedics and police, from assault in England and Wales.

The bill, proposed by Labour MP Chris Bryant and backed by the government, also gives power to take blood samples, with consent, from people who have spat at or bitten emergency workers, exposing them to risk of infection.

Police officers will be able to request the blood and saliva samples, and if the individual refuses – without ‘good cause’ – they could be prosecuted.

Emergency workers' anxiety

Speaking in parliament on 20 October, Mr Bryant said: ‘It makes it an offence punishable by a fine of up to £500 for an assailant unreasonably to refuse to give an intimate sample, such as a blood sample.

‘That matters, because so many officers and emergency workers have been spat at and lived in anxiety for months about whether they had contracted a communicable disease.’

RCN professional lead for emergency, acute and critical care Nichola Ashby said there needed to be clear documentation and policy on taking the samples, who would do so, and clear reasoning for why it was being done.

'New law could make matters worse'

Ms Ashby said: ‘Nurses are good at communicating to patients the reasons for taking samples. But when someone feels threatened, it can be difficult to request a blood sample and it could make a bad situation worse.’

Dr Ashby also drew attention to the ethical difficulty of taking intimate samples from patients who may be agitated, confused or even unconscious. She cited the case of the US nurse in Utah who was recently arrested during a shift for refusing to take blood from an unconscious patient.

‘We already have guidance from the RCN and the Nursing and Midwifery Council about taking blood samples. This needs a lot further explanation.’

Prevalence of assaults 

Nurse and Labour MP Karen Lee told MPs she welcomed the proposals.

‘I am pleased to see the call for blood and saliva tests when people have been bitten or spat at, because I know how worrying it is for somebody to think that they might have HIV or hepatitis.

‘Waiting times in A&E, plus the shortage of nurses to de-escalate situations because they are busy doing 101 other things, mean that there is nobody to deal with the rising tensions in hospital situations. That is partly why assaults are on the up – this group of people have suffered under the public sector pay cap, and at least this bill is one way of recognising their commitment.’

Information about infection

Justice minister Sam Gyimah said the government supported the creation of a specific power to request blood and saliva samples from offenders.

He said: ‘This will ensure emergency workers are provided with better information regarding the likelihood that they have caught a disease.

‘It will therefore reduce the number of occasions on which emergency workers themselves have to be tested and subsequently take medicines and endure periods of uncertainty about whether they have a disease.'

Mr Bryant said he would be ‘horrified’ if the bill was used to increase stigma of conditions such as HIV, and emphasised it was ‘almost inconceivable’ that someone would contract this infection through spit.

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