Throughout the Covid crisis, NIAS staff have been among those who have come into closest contact with the virus and have, quite rightly, been recognised for their efforts by the public and healthcare colleagues.
Many have had to make huge sacrifices by moving out of their family homes to reduce the risk of passing the virus, to which they have been exposed on a daily basis, on to at-risk relatives. This, they do out of a sense of commitment to the communities in which they live and serve and in whose health and well-being they are invested, attending to and serving the most vulnerable in our society.
In the early stages of the Pandemic, there was a reduction in the number of calls that NIAS crews were required to attend. Lockdown also meant that our staff were at lesser risk of assault in public place and fewer incidents of assaults were recorded in the period covering March and April.
However, during May we had forty-four physical or verbal assaults on our staff, with almost half of these occurring in the final week of May. Five of these assaults happened on one day – 30th May.
Some of these incidents have involved patients spitting at our crews and urinating over equipment whilst telling staff they have COVID and intend to pass it on to them.
In the period between 29th May to 7th June, thirty-five incidents of verbal or physical assaults, on our staff, have been reported and involved forty-two members of our staff. On too many occasions, staff noted that the perpetrator was under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.
Assaults are not just restricted to operational staff responding to calls, but are also experienced by staff working in our Control Centres and just recently, by members of a private ambulance service working on our behalf.
The impact on staff is not just in terms of physical injuries, but these events have a lasting psychological impact on those involved. We are also concerned about the increased stress placed upon family members, who are already having to cope with the added worry of their loved ones dealing with the risks associated with the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Like every other part of the HSC, NIAS has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and respect shown to our staff and the work that we do. Whilst we realise that we continue to have the full support of the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland, it is regrettable and concerning, that a number of people who call on us for help, feel it is acceptable to treat our staff in this way. Our staff should never be subject to the levels of abuse and physical harm which they sometimes encounter. It should never be considered an occupational hazard.
Michael Bloomfield, Chief Executive of the NI Ambulance Service, said
“I am greatly concerned at the recent rise in the number of physical and verbal assaults on our staff. These attacks occur too frequently and they are totally unacceptable to our staff, us and society in general.
Ambulance Service staff provide an essential service to the whole community. This is a difficult role at all times, but particularly so during the past few months dealing with the challenges and risks associated with Covid-19. For our staff to face the added fear of assault – physical and verbal, when they are trying to provide the best possible care and treatment is disgraceful and I call on all those with influence to condemn it.
I have no hesitation in calling for appropriate action to be taken, through the judicial system, against those who are responsible for these assaults.
These attacks can have a lasting emotional and psychological impact on our staff when physical wounds may have healed much quicker. Our staff deserve better and we will continue to support them through measures available to us, including immediate management and peer support which will continue for as long as necessary.
The impact of these attacks go far beyond the staff directly affected. They often result in our levels of cover being reduced as staff are unable to continue with their duties. Affected areas may be left vulnerable due to longer response times as crews attend from neighbouring stations. This could have potentially fatal consequences for those who urgently need of our service.
Our message is quite simply that these attacks must stop and that those who continue to assault our staff must become accountable to the full rigour of the law.
We would appeal to anyone in a position of influence to support us in our efforts to eradicate this totally unacceptable behaviour”
The Minister of Health, Robin Swann, expressed his outrage on hearing of the latest assaults, saying;
“I am absolutely appalled at these assaults. Ambulance staff have put themselves on the line for the rest of us time and time again during the Covid-19 pandemic.
We owe a massive debt of gratitude to them and to all their colleagues across the health and social care frontline.
It is beyond belief that they should be on the receiving of this kind of thuggery.
My thoughts are with all those affected. I hope they take comfort from the fact that the vast majority of people here regard them as heroes and will be as incensed as I am about these incidents.”