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RCN warns of the government’s ‘dangerous blind spot’ in tackling NHS staff assaults

Health ministers will no longer collect information on NHS staff assaults, the government confirmed for the first time on the eve of a Commons debate. 

Health ministers will no longer collect information on NHS staff assaults, the government confirmed for the first time on the eve of a Commons debate. 


MPs will today debate a Private Member’s Bill to strengthen the law against 
people who assault emergency workers in England and Wales. Posed by model. Picture: John Powell 

The RCN has warned that the move leaves the government blind to the scale of the problem and risks a further deterioration. 

MPs will today debate a Private Member’s Bill to strengthen the law against people who assault emergency workers in England and Wales. 

The Department of Health confirmed that the NHS and government will not continue to collect assaults figures – previously gathered and released by NHS Protect. Ministers scrapped the body in the current financial year.

Rising number

The final figures released by NHS Protect showed a rising number of assaults on NHS staff. 

In a parliamentary question response, ministers said that the government will rely on an annual survey that NHS workers complete on an optional basis.

The RCN says this will not capture the real number of attacks, and that the decision stands in contrast to the Home Office, which monitors assaults on police officers. 

It warns that using the annual NHS staff survey makes it difficult to measure the impact if the Bill becomes law; does not provide a comprehensive data set; and fails to distinguish between intentional assaults and those related to a patient’s medical condition. 

The draft legislation, from Labour MP for Rhondda, Chris Bryant, received government backing following a similar pledge in the Conservative party election manifesto.

Double the maximum sentence

The legislation will double the maximum sentence for common assault from six months to a year if committed against an emergency worker while on duty. 

Since 2008, it has been a specific offence to assault a doctor, nurse or midwife in Scotland while they are working. The Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005 carries a penalty of up to 12 months imprisonment and/or a £10,000 fine. 

Ahead of the debate, nurses from across the country visited Parliament to lobby MPs to support the Bill. 

Last year, a survey of RCN members found more than half (56%) had experienced physical or verbal abuse from patients and a further 63% from patients’ relatives or other members of the public.

Figures from NHS Protect showed a 4% rise in physical assaults against healthcare workers in England from 67,864 in 2014-15 to 70,555 in 2015-16.

‘Totally inadequate’

The NHS Protect data also revealed only 10% of physical assaults, unrelated to a medical condition such as a mental health problem or dementia, result in criminal sanctions.

RCN senior employment relations adviser Kim Sunley said: ‘This creates a dangerous blind spot for ministers hoping to tackle the increasing number of assaults in the NHS. It is totally inadequate to rely on optional surveys, especially if the law is being tightened. 

‘NHS Protect warned ministers the level of assaults was rising. It should not have been removed and the government must take their role more seriously.

‘This bill represents a vital step towards achieving that, but without the ability to fully monitor the figures, it will be difficult to quantify the scale of the problem, or the effectiveness of any new law.’

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