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Steep rise in reported assaults against NHS staff, says UNISON

Last year in England physical assaults on NHS staff rose by nearly 10% compared to 2015/16, according to new figures published today (Tuesday) by UNISON and HSJ.

The figures were obtained following a Freedom of Information (FoI) request – submitted by HSJ working on behalf of UNISON – to all the 244 NHS trusts in England. Answers were received from 181 organisations.

The biggest increase was in the acute sector, with reported attacks on health workers in hospitals with an A&E department up a staggering 21%, says UNISON. There were 18,720 assaults in 2016/17 in the acute trusts who responded, compared to 15,469 the previous year.

The data collected suggests that last year NHS trusts struggling to meet their performance targets were likely to fare particularly badly. Trusts who treated 90% or fewer of their patients within 18 weeks of referral saw an average increase in reported assaults of 36.2% (6,982) in 2016/17 (6,982), up 1,857 on the previous year.

Similarly, NHS trusts struggling with huge financial deficits were also likely to have witnessed a big rise in the number of reported attacks on staff, according to the data.

The HSJ/UNISON figures suggest that assaults in the trusts that are more than £20m in the red were up 23.1% on the previous year (5,113 in 2016/17, up from 4,152 in 2015/16). This compares to an increase of just 1.5% for organisations that were comfortably in the black, and had surpluses in excess of £5 million.

The trusts responding to the FoI request reported physical assaults on staff of 56,435 in 2016/17, a 9.7% increase on the 2016/16 data (51,447).

If these figures are extrapolated to cover the whole of the NHS in England, the number of reported violent incidents in 2016/17 is likely to be closer to 75,000, the equivalent of 200 every single day.

When measured per 1,000 staff (to take account of increases in the NHS workforce), the rise in reported assaults was 6% on the 2015/16 figures.

UNISON asked HSJ to carry out the research, as it is concerned that since the abolition of NHS Protect last year, there is no meaningful collation or comparison being made of the data on assaults.

Commenting on the figures, UNISON head of health Sara Gorton said: “Across the entire NHS, staff shortages are harming patient care and helping to create a hostile environment where health workers are increasingly at risk of being assaulted.

“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.

“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.

Although staff working in mental health are seven and a half times more likely to be attacked (there were 33,820 reported assaults in 2016/17 in the trusts who responded to the survey), this was a smaller increase from 2015/16 of 5%. This seems to suggest the sector is having some success in preventing a difficult situation from getting any worse.

Other parts of the NHS showing an increase in attacks on staff higher than the national average of 9.7% were:

  • Community trusts – up 21.5% in the trusts responding to the survey (860 in 2016/17, up from 708 in 2015/16)
  • Ambulance trusts saw 2,330 violent incidents in 2016/17, up from 2,036 the previous year (a 14.5% increase)
  • Trusts employing more than 7,000 staff reported a 15.5% increase on 2015/16, compared to an 8.3% rise in the number of assaults in organisations employing less than 3,000.

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