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Our essential workers deserve better

May 20, 2024 by Alistair Enser

Over the last twelve months, we came out on our doorsteps and clapped for the heroes in the NHS but reading the press last week I was reminded of the challenges that they still face – and how they are subject to simply unacceptable behaviour from the general public.

The latest NHS Staff Survey reveals that one in three (33.6%) ambulance staff has experienced at least one incident of physical violence in the last twelve months. That’s more than twice the rate of general NHS workers (14.5%). As Health Secretary Matt Hancock explained to NHS workers: “Being assaulted or abused is not part of the job.”

While attacking health workers is outrageous, it’s not a problem that the health service faces alone. Almost one in three (29%) teachers have been hit, punched or kicked – and nearly two in five (39%) have been shoved or barged by students, a 2019 study from the NASUWT teaching union revealed. One teacher, a former rugby player, said they were “more protected against physical violence and verbal intimidation on the pitch” than they were at school.

It’s a similar picture on our high streets. Nearly nine out of ten (89%) local shop workers have experienced some form of abuse over the last year, leading to over a million recorded incidents, according to the retail trade union, USDAW. These attacks have been driven by the pandemic, with 65% of shopworkers citing Covid-related threats when enforcing rules over wearing face masks, maintaining social distancing and age verification.

The sterling work of police officers often places them in harm’s way, of course. But it is simply unacceptable that officers face more than two million attacks each year, according to a survey by the Police Federation.

What’s more, they are at the sharp end of a situation that only looks like getting worse. The crime commissioner for England’s second-biggest police force has warned that young people are at risk of becoming unemployable and turning to crime as schools close, leading to social unrest. Covid is “oiling the wheels of violence” according to David Jamieson, the police and crime commissioner (PCC) for the West Midlands. “If we don’t address the issues of people coming off furlough and then just having nothing they can see as their future, we are in trouble”, he said.

Indeed, while crime as a whole has fallen over the course of the pandemic, the National Police Chiefs’ Council estimated that reports of antisocial behaviour were up 12% last year, when excluding breaches of Covid restrictions. Yet the Police will not be able to respond to all breaches of coronavirus restrictions as crime rises towards pre-pandemic levels, a senior officer has warned. Police leaders expect a rise in violence as coronavirus restrictions are gradually eased in England and the picture, therefore, is not pretty. I recently mentioned the security services’ concerns that a terrorist incident is around the corner, but the rise of civil unrest in a harsh economic environment is already challenging the Police.

Like their key worker counterparts in hospitals, schools or shops, police officers deserve to do their job without fear of physical or verbal assault. Technology certainly has a role to play here, and at Reliance Protect we have seen an increasing interest in body worn video solutions that not only provide the evidence needed to prosecute offenders but act as a deterrent to these incidents. It’s not the sole answer, however. For example, there is a wider discussion underway around tougher sentencing for those found guilty of attacks on police officers, and this debate is timely and necessary.

In the final analysis, however, people must learn that any verbal or physical assault on those we depend on to keep us safe and healthy, who teach our children, or keep our shelves stocked with food is simply unacceptable. It has to stop.