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Viewpoint: Our health service heroes deserve protection from violent patients

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Attacks on Emergency Department staff are becoming all too frequent

Attacks on Emergency Department staff are becoming all too frequent

Attacks on Emergency Department staff are becoming all too frequent

The distressing account of life in the accident and emergency department of a Northern Ireland hospital related by a male nurse is sadly an all too familiar story, and one which shows no sign of abating.

Stephen McKenna related how he was subjected to six violent outbursts from patients in the last two weeks of his night duty shifts. Hot coffee was thrown at him and another patient fired his crutches at the nurse.

Those are totally unacceptable attacks on a person attempting to care for patients in their moments of need. Yet it is those patients who are responsible for the attacks which frequently necessitate the intervention of security staff or police. And those incidents are by no means isolated. In 2018 it was reported that in the previous 12 months hospital staff had been subjected to nearly 35,000 assaults.

That does not include the attacks on ambulance staff which in 2019 were reported to be running at around an average of nine assaults every week.

Mr McKenna has every reason to condemn the thuggery directed at him and his colleagues without equivocation, yet he tries to find an explanation for some of it. The demands on A&E staff, especially since the Covid pandemic began, is enormous and that manifests itself in increased waiting time for patients to be seen and treated.

To the individual a broken finger or a cut to the head may seem like serious injuries but they may be minor compared to what other patients are suffering from and who need immediate treatment. Even given the frustrations, assaults on hospital staff are unforgivable. No one should be fearful of going to work and worried that they will be assaulted at some time during their shift.

These assaults are frightening for staff but also for other patients. They also cause concern for hospital administrators who have to come up with ways of protecting both patients and staff. Security staff have very limited powers other than to intervene to protect the person being assaulted and it is deemed unacceptable to have a near permanent police presence in a hospital department.

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Yet, given the frequency and severity of the attacks, it is a measure which cannot be ruled out entirely, although it would tie up already stretched PSNI resources and potentially put officers in danger from dissident republican terrorists.

What is certain is that those in authority in the health service should take the accounts of Mr McKenna and other medical staff seriously. Our NHS heroes deserve protection.


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