NHS staff are being assaulted like never before

Physical attacks on health workers are on the rise, and government cuts to services might well be to blame.

Figures published today revealed how there has been a steep increase in physical assaults on NHS workers in the space of 12 months. 

The new report, issued by UNISON and the Health Service Journal (HSJ), showed how attacks had grown my nearly 10% across NHS trusts in England between 2015/16 and 2016/17.

Figures were obtained after the HSJ submitted a Freedom of Information request to all 244 English NHS trusts. Over 180 of those sent in their data.

Speaking anonymously to UNISON, orthopaedics healthcare assistant Sally recounted how a patient with mental health issues put her in a headlock. In another occasion she was grabbed by the neck and thrown water at.

Registered nurse Anna told the union how lack of staffing and connected pressures are worsening the situation. She recounted being slapped by her patients and witnessing a colleague being punched in the face.

A total of 56,435 reported assaults on staff were reported in NHS England last year, but the union suggested that the number could be closer to 75,000 – over 200 attacks every single day.

Figures also showed how the biggest rise in violent attacks took place in the acute sector, with assaults on A&E workers going up by 21%. The equivalent to 18,720 attacks on emergency staff.

Worryingly, the data collected revealed how NHS trusts struggling financially or failing to meet performance targets were more likely to witness a rise in the number of reported attacks.

UNISON head of health Sara Gorton thought that the figures weren’t surprising, saying:

“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.”

Data compiled by the union suggested that trusts with more than £20 million in debt saw assaults on their staff grow by 23.1% on the previous year. In contrast, organisations with surpluses in excess of £5 million or running with comfortable margins saw attacks on workers grow by just 1.5%.

The problem is, however, widespread across the NHS, with community trusts reporting a 21.5% increase in violent incidents between 2015/16 and last year.

Ambulance trusts too saw over 2,300 attacks on their staff last year.

UNISON believes that the abolition of the NHS Protect programme last year could affect the way in which violence on NHS staff is being monitored and controlled.

Gorton said:

“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. The government should reverse its ill-thought out decision to axe NHS Protect immediately.”

She added that while mental health staff are still seven and a half times more likely to be attacked than other NHS workers, the increase in assaults was substantially smaller than in other departments. A testament to the service, which seems to be having some success in controlling the spiralling crisis.

Joana Ramiro is a reporter for Left Foot Forward. You can follow her on Twitter for all sorts of rants here.

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