Later today, MPs will debate a private members’ bill that proposes tougher sentences for those found guilty of assaulting emergency workers, including nurses in A&E or urgent care departments.
The bill, which has gained the verbal support of ministers, proposes doubling the maximum sentence for common assault against an emergency worker from six months to a year.
It is an idea that I instinctively want to support and that is likely to go down well with the public, which is probably why the government looks set to back the bill proposed by Labour’s Chris Bryant.
However, on reflection, I’m not entirely sure what it will achieve. Will a patient who is drunk, in crisis or just plain nasty decide not to punch a nurse, after carefully weighing up the risk of prison? I doubt it.
“Let us not forget that the prison service itself is already overcrowded and understaffed”
No doubt the causes and solutions to violence against emergency workers and other NHS staff are complex and I don’t pretend to have the answers. Some are no doubt cultural, for example, linked to our relationship with alcohol – especially at weekends.
Still, more are about systems, with people frustrated at long waits in A&E caused by problems with delayed discharge at the other end of the patient pathway. Then of course there is short-staffing.
“That’s right, the body responsible for monitoring assaults on NHS staff and prosecuting offenders does not exist anymore”
We could potentially start by trying to sort out these last two – not just to reduce violence in our hospitals but for a whole host of reasons to do with patient safety and staff wellbeing.
I also think the proposed bill stops short of covering those most vulnerable to assault. What about community nurses, often working on their own in people’s homes, or mental health staff, who are the nursing group statistically most frequently assaulted?
According to a Unison survey published earlier this month, 42% of mental health workers said they had been on the receiving end of violent attacks in the last year.
- Violent attacks on mental health staff rising with shortages
- Community nurses warn of rising tide of abuse and assault
Let us not forget that the prison service itself is already overcrowded and understaffed. There is an irony for me that assaults on prison officers – sparked or possible due to staff shortages – could lead to sentences being extended and even more pressure.
Only in August, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) warned that the safety of nurses working in prisons was being put at risk, because they have become “dangerous, overcrowded warehouses”.
As everyone knows, this is not a new problem, although it seems to be a growing one. For what it’s worth, the NHS has had what is termed a “zero tolerance” attitude towards violence since 1999.
“Punish those responsible for assaulting the frontline professionals who are trying to help them, but don’t expect it to solve the root cause of the problem”
A quick search through the Nursing Times news archive produces stories published in 2010, 2014 and 2016 that all reported a steady rise in physical assaults on health service staff.
There were 56,718 assaults on NHS staff in England during 2009-10 – a rise of 3.6% from 54,758 the previous year. Skip to 2013-14 and the number has risen to 68,683, up a massive 9% from the 63,199 in 2012-13.
Lastly, during 2015-16 – the last period that the figures were published for – there were a total of 70,555 physical assaults on NHS staff in England, up 3.89% from 67,864 in 2014-15.
- NHS staff face ‘tinderbox’ of frustration and aggression
- Figures reveal 9% hike in violent assaults on NHS staff in a year
- Increase in assaults on NHS workers
Worst of all, as the RCN has also highlighted today, is that the body that used to collect the figures, NHS Protect, was scrapped in April this year.
That’s right, the body responsible for monitoring assaults on NHS staff and prosecuting offenders does not exist anymore, which rather makes a mockery of having a policy of zero tolerance.
In addition, the government has just confirmed that neither itself nor the NHS will now collect actual assaults figures, instead choosing to rely on responses to the NHS staff survey that offer only an indication – leaving us with what the RCN called a “dangerous blind spot”.
By all means, punish those responsible for assaulting the frontline professionals who are trying to help them, but don’t expect it to solve the root cause of the problem.
More time spent doing porridge will not reduce pressure on the health and care system, help train and recruit more staff, or invoke cultural change. Neither will it help us collect the data so that we can at least measure the scale of the problem.