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Zero tolerance campaign needed to stop attacks on NHS workers

Zero tolerance campaign needed to stop attacks on NHS workers
3 min read

Oliver Dowden MP argues that criminal sanctions only go so far in dealing with attacks on NHS workers, and focus must also be put on preventative measures.


In a 20 year nursing career I have been spat at, punched, kicked, verbally abused regularly & even had a cardiac monitor thrown at my head’; ‘threats were daily and physical attempted assaults at least weekly’; ‘there was a perception that female staff were seen as “fair game” for sexual assault’.

These are just a few of the testimonies I received in advance of a Westminster Hall debate on assaults on NHS staff. The debate was prompted by a petition from over 100,000 mainly LBC listeners calling for tougher laws.

The raw statistics – over 70,000 assaults recorded annually – give only part of the story. These testimonies and many similar ones shared by other MPs give a raw sense of doctors, nurses, paramedics and support workers determined to deliver the best care for their patients but anxious about their safety in doing so.

We can all agree that these attacks are completely unacceptable and most not be tolerated. The question the debate sought to address was how to stop them.

Petitioners offered one solution. It is already a specific criminal offence to assault a police officer, an immigration officer and a prison officer so why not extend the offence to NHS workers? This would send a clear signal on the face of the law that attacks against NHS staff are of equal gravity.

I support the change but it is not a panacea. The maximum penalty attached to such assaults is six months in prison, which is exactly the same as for other assaults. More serious assaults such as assaults occasioning actual or grievous bodily harm attract higher sentences but do not have specific offences for any profession. Such a move would therefore only be a signal; it would not lead to stiffer sentences.

The courts, police and prosecuting authorities must also treat assaults against public servants with the utmost gravity at every stage of the process from arrest to sentencing. I was therefore glad that the Government undertook to review the protocols governing the treatment of such cases. It will also ensure that the fact that offences took place against public servants will now be explicitly highlighted in court at sentencing.

Criminal sanctions only deal with the consequences. Preventative measures such as working environments designed with security in mind, greater provision of lone worker alarms and better training for security staff are all required to reduce the incidence offences in the first place.

The most effective response is cultural change. A good starting point may be a nationwide zero tolerance campaign. There is evidence this has started to work in Wales.

People are outraged that healers who put themselves on the line to care for us should be subject to assault. A correction to our approach to the perpetrators is overdue. 

Oliver Dowden CBE is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Hertsmere

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