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16th February 2017

Department of Health to remove NHS staff safety body

Another threat to the future of the flailing NHS has come as the body focussed on the safety of doctors is to be removed, despite a recent increase in attacks by patients
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NHS Protect will be ending its security management operations in hospitals by April this year, under order of the Department of Health, according to a recent report from the BBC.

The body currently works by advising hospitals on improving staff safety and educating staff on how to avoid, handle and report incidents of physical assault, violence and aggression in clinical settings. It is yet to be decided whether the body will be reassigned to a different department, and which department will shoulder the responsibility.

NHS Protect was established in 2003 to reduce crime across NHS front-line services. One of its priorities was to enforce the NHS’ zero tolerance policy on violence towards healthcare workers.

Amongst its five strategic aims is “establish[ing] a safe and secure environment [to] protect NHS staff from violence, harassment and abuse”. Since it was introduced, NHS Protect has shown a “significant increase” in prosecution of offenders, with up to 98 per cent of annual physical assaults on A&E staff resulted in the arrest of the offending party.

However, figures published by NHS Protect show annual assaults on staff rose by 18 per cent between 2011 and 2015, with the total number reaching 70,555, highlighting staff safety as a continually serious issue.

Healthcare workers in the NHS are up to four times more likely to experience physical assault in their professional environment than other workers.

A first year medical student at the University of Manchester, who wished to remain anonymous, has said he “feel[s] worried as removing this [body] will only increase the number of incidences and puts me as well as other future doctors more at risk.”

He further expressed concerns that such measures could result in a “drop in patient care due to medical staff not knowing what to do in such situations”.

The Government’s Health Service Circular in 2001 noted that in certain circumstances it is appropriate, and safer, to withhold treatment from aggressive or violent individuals in order to ensure the safety of staff and other patients.

The majority of patient assaults are related to medical reasons, so a lack of suitable training amongst staff to handle such cases may lead to negligence of patients with violent or aggressive tendencies due to mental illness.

The decision to transfer the responsibility for the security of staff comes at a time when the NHS is under the severest strain it has ever seen. Accident & Emergency waiting times in recent months have been at their highest since 2004, when the Labour Government introduced the target of a 4-hour maximum wait time for patients to be seen by a doctor.

A Department of Health associated publication on reducing violence in A&E units linked longer waiting times with patient and relative aggression; with a consistent and growing failure to meet waiting time targets, it is more likely that violence and threats towards staff will rise.

Such working conditions could see a further shortage of trained staff as well as a decline in applications for healthcare training courses across England. Currently nursing vacancies exceed 24,000 and only 50 per cent of those completing medicine degrees in UK universities continue their specialist studies here.

Since the Brexit referendum applications for NHS jobs from the EU have declined enormously, with nursing alone seeing a decline of 90 per cent in EU workers registering.

Staff shortages could rise significantly in the coming years, especially without a defined body to ensure staff safety and prevent assaults on front-line workers.

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