Tougher sentences will be brought against people who assault nurses and other healthcare staff under a new law approved this week.
The Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill received its royal assent on Thursday and will come into force in November.
“From now on, anyone who wilfully assaults a health care worker will feel the full force of the law”
The legislation means the maximum prison term for anyone who attacks certain public servants in the course of their duties in England and Wales will double from six to twelve months.
Anyone carrying out an NHS service will be protected by the law.
It also covers police, prison and custody officers, firefighters and search and rescue teams.
“I hope it will give greater protection to the heroes and the heroines of the NHS”
The new law will also mean that judges must consider harsher sentences for a range of other offences - including grievous bodily harm and sexual assault - if the victim is an emergency worker.
The Royal College of Nursing lobbied to have the bill broadened to cover all nursing staff employed to deliver NHS funded care.
Initially, it was only going to apply to those working in an A&E department or an urgent treatment centre.
Kim Sunley, RCN national officer, said: “Physical assaults remain a fact of life for many health care workers, from A&E to community services. This bill is the first step towards changing that for good.
“From now on, anyone who wilfully assaults a health care worker will feel the full force of the law and can expect a tougher sentence if found guilty.
“The RCN has campaigned tirelessly for this law. Our negotiations have ensured it covers as many health care workers as possible, including community and district nurses.”
However, Ms Sunley insisted that this was ”not the end of the fight”, and called for further measures to protect nurses from abuse.
She said: ”These attacks do not happen in a vacuum, and improved staffing levels, properly funded services and better support from employers would help further mitigate the risk that too many health care staff run day in, day out.”
The RCN is hosting a summit on tackling workplace violence in October, which will bring together key organisations that have backed the bill from across different sectors to discuss how they can support the implementation of the law.
The bill was proposed by Chris Bryant, Labour MP for Rhondda in Wales.
Mr Bryant said: “I am delighted this new act will go some way to stopping the assaults on emergency workers, including all members of NHS staff.
”It has been a delight work with the RCN and the NHS trade unions to deliver a bill that provides protection for the first time ever to NHS staff,” he said.
Government backs bill for new law on A&E nurse assaults
“The key issue will now be ensuring that the police and prosecuting authorities use the new law to crack down on assaults,” said Mr Bryant.
”An attack on an emergency worker is an attack on all of us, and although this bill will not change the world overnight, I hope it will give greater protection to the heroes and the heroines of the NHS,” he added.
Justice minister Rory Stewart said public servants must be able to do their job “with the fear of being assaulted”.
He added: “Our message is clear – we will protect our emergency services and violence towards them will not be tolerated.”
It comes amid a rise in assaults against emergency workers, with 17,000 attacks on NHS staff in the past year.