The shocking rise of violence in the NHS

Unison general secretary Dave Prentis writes about the shocking rise in violence against NHS staff - and the poor proesectution rate, currently only 1.9 pc.

Dave Prentis is the General Secretary of UNISON, Britain’s biggest public sector trade union with more than 1.3 million members

This week, almost under cover of darkness, the NHS Fraud and Security Management Service put on their website statistics detailing the number of attacks on NHS staff in 2009/10. Why this information should be put out quietly, like a guilty secret to be swept under the carpet, is beyond me.

The public should know about the verbal and physical assaults that nurses, paramedics, porters, healthcare assistants and other NHS staff face on an all too frequent basis. Abused simply for turning up to work with the sole purpose of helping people.

It is shameful that 56,718 NHS staff were victims of attack and the public should know and feel outrage on their behalf.

These latest statistics make seriously depressing reading with the figures showing a rise in the number of attacks. Pity the poor nurse at the Countess of Chester NHS Foundation Trust where the figures show 58 out of every 1,000 staff were assaulted last year. Or the paramedic working in London where the figure rises to 67 out of every 1,000 staff.

Of course other factors such as location -­ urban or rural – or how well Trusts gather their statistics come into play, but the sheer level of violence should not be tolerated in our so called ‘civilised society’. My members tell me that 20 years ago, it was rare for a nurse to be sworn at, let alone punched or spat at. Now sadly it’s all too common.

Being literally on the front-line, especially on drink-fuelled Friday or Saturday nights, ambulance crews are prime targets. Around a third of staff were attacked in 2009/10 and tellingly, around 80 per cent of those assaults were completely unrelated to medical factors such as mental illness or because of the treatment being given at the time. In other words they were victims of purely malicious assaults.

And it seems that when it comes to assault, many Trusts are still unwilling to prosecute the guilty party; 13,219 attacks in the acute sector led to just 412 taking criminal sanctions – a tiny 3 per cent.

It may come as no surprise to some that the largest number of attacks were made on staff in the mental health sector, 38,959. However, it is completely wrong to label all patients with mental illness as violent. In fact they are more likely to self-harm than to hurt others. The statistics show medical factors such as treatment being administered or the illness itself was not a factor in over 40 per cent of cases of assault. Getting this message across is not an easy one.

We have a government that thinks health and safety is nothing but red tape. Try telling that to the nurse with a black eye or paramedic threatened with a knife -violence is very much a health and safety issue. The NHS Security Management Service has an important role to play in beefing up safety and encouraging Trusts to share best practice. With Trusts struggling to make £20 billion in efficiency savings, they must make sure that they are not tempted to cut corners with staff safety.

Sharing good practice is one way and UNISON believes that tougher sanctions is another. As a union with more than 450,000 members in the NHS, we want to see anyone found guilty of assaulting a health worker given a tough sentence. Everyone knows that if you attack a police officer the courts will throw the book at you, so why can’t a nurse or paramedic have the same protection.

Of course to do that you will need to up the prosecution rate, which stands at 1.9 per cent of the total number of assaults – pathetic. Our health workers deserve better.

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