Lord Clark: Act now to stop the abuse of NHS staff

Posted On: 
3rd June 2019

Despite last year’s Emergency Workers Act, bullying and harassment in the NHS is on the rise. Management owe it to their staff to make use of these new powers, writes Lord Clark

“Attacks on staff must be approached with zero tolerance”
Credit: 
PA Images

The NHS is the most treasured institution of modern Britain. Since its formation in 1948, it has provided exemplary health care for all citizens based on need and free at the point of delivery. Repeated international studies find it to be the best anywhere and with 1.5 employees it is the 5th largest employer in the world. It has been described as the nearest thing Britain has to a religion.

Over recent years, in spite of its popularity, the NHS suffered badly under the austerity years of recent governments when spending on health failed to match the increasing needs of the population. I well recall the mantra from ministers that, ‘it’s no good throwing money at the problem’.

One particularly disastrous policy was the cut in the training places for doctors, nurses and other health care professionals in the years following 2010. We are still struggling to make up for the shortfalls of that calamitous mistake.

It’s no exaggeration that the NHS has only survived because of the commitment, hard work and dedication of its staff at every level. They have struggled on with staff shortages; 41,000 nurses and currently 11,500 vacancies for doctors. Many have had to work extra hours often unpaid, sometimes when they were ill, pushing themselves to the limit in providing medical care for the British people. We owe them a huge thanks.

One consequence of all this pressure has been an increase in abuse, bullying and harassment in the service. All too often, management facing their own pressures, have ignored the problem. To make matters worse, local health authorities have sometimes imposed gagging orders on staff and even non-disclosure orders.

The conditions under which staff are working mean that the situation is deteriorating. Junior doctors, nurses and radiographers in particular suffer, with over 25% of all NHS staff having experienced bullying in the workplace last year.

 Perhaps however the greatest challenge comes from the public. For some inexplicable reason, in recent years a severe lack of respect has emerged. At every level of the NHS, staff are facing abuse, bullying and harassment from patients and especially their friends and relatives. Why they react in such a manner to people who are trying to help them is difficult to comprehend.

Ambulance staff encounter terrible experiences with the public when they are answering emergency calls. They suffer physical attack and have equipment stolen from their ambulances. In hospitals there is hardly a nurse who has not experienced physical violence including being punched. The Health Minister in the Lords disclosed in 2018, that there were 70,555 physical attacks on NHS staff. Yet because of intense workplace pressure many of these incidents go unreported. Sometimes this is because staff are working so hard they simply don’t have time to fill in the necessary paper work and feel that even if they do report it, the management too often ignore the issue. Nurses are increasing coming to accept such behaviour as part of the job. This is not acceptable, and management need to get a grip on the issue.

The problem is increasing in doctors’ surgeries. Patients are becoming abusive which is aggravated by the shortage of GPs, leading to patients experiencing difficulties in getting appointments. A GPs surgery in Halifax has even had to provide staff with lessons in self-defence following death threats from an abusive patient.

Bullying is not only indefensible but costs the NHS £2.3bn; money which should be going into patient care.

In the NHS, which is committed to providing health care for all, it is difficult to withdraw cover from really abusive individuals. There is an NHS register of abusive patients which increased by over 3,000 last year. Unpalatable as such a list is, we owe to our NHS staff to protect them. Attacks on staff must be approached with zero tolerance. They should not have to accept bullying, harassment and violence as being simply part of the job. The Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 provides the means to protect the staff and management should use it.

Lord Clark of Windermere is Labour peer