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NHS: Abuse of Nurses

Volume 820: debated on Tuesday 5 April 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to reduce the abuse of nurses in the NHS.

Abuse directed towards nurses is unacceptable, and we are determined to tackle this. NHS England has established a violence reduction programme to address deliberate violence and aggression towards NHS staff and to ensure that offenders are punished quickly and effectively. This includes implementing the NHS violence prevention and reduction standard, which requires employers to implement plans to tackle violence in the workplace. In addition, the Government are legislating to double the sentences of those who are violent towards NHS staff.

I thank the noble Lord for his Answer. He is clearly aware of the problem, which is indeed growing. Nurses and other NHS staff are abused daily and many are being reduced to tears. As the retention of nurses is at a critical stage, with abuse being a key contributing factor, what specific plans have the Government to tackle this problem as a matter of urgency in trying to build up the key respect in which the general public used to hold NHS workers?

The noble Lord is absolutely right that we have identified the issue, and the NHS is working on a number of plans. All of us abhor any abuse of nurses or indeed any other NHS staff. The NHS has looked into this and has seen that many cases of violence against NHS staff are committed by individuals who are in a mental health crisis, or suffering from dementia or other neurological conditions, rather than the classic perception of attacks on staff by the public. The NHS has not only the violence prevention and reduction programme but a number of other initiatives to try to tackle this unwarranted issue.

My Lords, I declare my interests as outlined in the register. I particularly want to raise the issue of nurses on shifts who are having difficulty parking both near the hospital for a reasonable cost—that cost was removed during Covid, which made life much easier for them—and in the community, where we have reports of them being abused for parking near patients’ homes. What strategy will the Government achieve to reduce this stress and the associated verbal violence?

The NHS is looking at a number of different ways of tackling violence towards staff, as well as supporting them in how to handle difficult situations and giving them well-being support. On the specific issue that the noble Baroness raises, it is probably better if I commit to writing to her.

My Lords, the individuals who abuse healthcare staff should understand and then pay for the harm they cause and be helped to change their behaviour. To augment existing arrangements, will the Government therefore look at implementing an NHS restorative justice scheme?

We are looking at the way in which abusers are treated. On 13 November 2018, the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 came into force, and since 2020 we have also been working with the Ministry of Justice in consulting on doubling the sentence for such assaults to two years. The Government are now legislating for this through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. In addition, a Joint Agreement on Offences Against Emergency Workers was agreed between NHS England and NHS Improvement and the Crown Prosecution Service in January 2020.

My Lords, will the Minister outline how the training of nurses is being adjusted or extended to take account of this regrettable violence towards them? Does he agree that when we are thinking about training, we must include all nurses—not just those who work in hospitals but, most especially, those who work in communities and therefore go individually into people’s homes?

As well as various programmes such as the NHS violence prevention and reduction standard, against which trusts are measured and held accountable, there are a number of different local initiatives to see what works and what does not in different places. There are a number of innovative ones, and I will give one example, rather than take up too much time. The No Force First initiative at Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust has resulted in a 46% reduction in physical assaults against staff. There are a number of other examples that I could lay out in detail.

There are many opportunities to stop the violence. My nephew is involved in security in a major hospital, and he says the pressure they are under is enormous. They have to work very long hours to make the necessary money. We must look at those kinds of policing operations within our major hospitals.

The noble Lord is absolutely right: it is not a simple issue, and people abuse for lots of different reasons. We are looking at different ways to deal with this, including training staff to deal with violence from patients with dementia or mental illness. We are also looking at various security measures. Money is being made available for trusts and primary care to take security measures, including the installation of cameras and screens for receptionists.

My Lords, does my noble friend have any idea who the people are who are abusing nurses, how many of them are drunk and how many of them are mentally ill?

I thank my noble friend for his question. When the NHS started investigating and digging deeper into this issue, the assumption was that it was often just members of the public. It is finding that it is individuals who have had a mental health crisis or are suffering from dementia or another neurological condition, rather than the classic perception of members of staff being abused by the public.

My Lords, yesterday’s Health and Social Care Committee report emphasised that earlier diagnosis and prompt cancer treatment will not be possible without a plan to address gaps in the cancer workforce, including the need for nearly 3,500 additional specialist cancer nurses by 2030. Does the Minister accept that a workforce plan is essential to improving cancer diagnosis, research and treatment, and how will the Government attract new staff and improve staff retention by improving day-to-day working conditions, which must include preventing abuse and giving support where it does occur?

I hope the noble Baroness will appreciate that I have laid out some of the initiatives that are taking place, and which are not only trying to prevent abuses against members of staff and nursing staff but supporting staff to de-escalate them. On well-being and getting more nurses, the Government are committed to continuing to grow the NHS workforce. We are still committed to the figure of 50,000 more nurses and to putting the NHS on a trajectory towards a sustainable long-term supply in the future. We are working on a number of well-being schemes to ensure that nurses are supported and feel safer and more willing to stay in service.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that sometimes, nurses find themselves in this difficult situation because, as the most junior staff, they are required to give unwelcome messages about the limitations of resources? There are a lot of managers in the health service, but they put nurses forward to give that unwelcome message to patients and their relatives. Can the Minister see whether there are better ways to protect the most junior staff in the organisation?

I must admit that I was not aware of that, but I will take it back to the department to investigate and will write to the noble Lord. We have been looking at how to train staff not only to deal with abusers but to handle different situations and to de-escalate. There are also a number of staff health and well-being support programmes, including website session support lines, certain apps, well-being seminars and coaching seminars.

My Lords, abuse and violence is increasing towards not just nurses but others providing frontline services, such as shopworkers, teachers and police officers. The abusers are usually bullies and a minority in the community. I remember years ago as a rookie police officer being assaulted. The cavalry came to rescue me in the form of members of the public, led by a bus driver who turned out to be a special constable. This exemplifies the importance of voluntary public service. Does the Minister agree with this analysis, and what are the Government doing to encourage voluntary organisations such as the special constabulary to increase their numbers?

The noble Lord makes a very important point—it is not just about nurses but people right across the care sector, including doctors and receptionists, and public services. My father was a bus driver and he used to come home once or twice with a knife that he had taken off an attacker, having had to defend himself. This has been going on for years, and it is really important that we work in partnership with trade unions and others to ensure that we look after all our staff, particularly those in vital public services.