A new law to protect emergency workers from assaults has won the personal backing of Theresa May after police, paramedics and nurses lobbied MPs for tougher sentences.
A private members’ bill to specifically target abuse against 999 staff has secured the Prime Minister’s approval, HuffPost UK has been told.
The Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill, tabled by Labour MP Chris Bryant, is due to have its Second Reading in the Commons on Friday and is now expected to get enough Parliamentary time to get on the statute book.
Dubbed the ‘Protect The Protectors Law’, the bill follows a rising number of incidents where NHS, firefighters and police staff have been abused, attacked or spat at in the line of duty.
The legislation will for the first time deem assaults on emergency staff as “aggravated”, and subject to heavier sentences. It will also force suspects to provide samples of saliva or blood to ensure rapid testing of HIV and other illnesses.
Asked if the PM was giving her personal support to the bill, a No.10 spokesman told HuffPost UK: “That’s one the Government is backing, so you can take that as a ‘yes’.”
The Ministry of Justice and Home Office are expected to signal on Friday their support for the new legislation.
Backed by trade unions and staff bodies such as the Police Federation, an alliance of emergency workers held a ‘drop-in’ lobby of MPs in the Commons on Wednesday.
Bryant told HuffPost UK: “I’m really encouraged by how many MPs have come along, listened to emergency workers and said they’ll support the Bill.
“It’s not over until the votes are counted though and I’m not counting my chickens yet. All sorts of things could still go awry.”
Alan Lofthouse, national ambulance officer for the Unison trade union, said: “It’s only right that the full force of the law is used against anyone who attacks those trying to save lives and protect the public. This bill will help the courts to bring offenders to justice.”
HuffPost UK talked to five emergency workers, each with their own stories of why a new law was needed.
Gavin Taylor, 50, Paramedic, Manchester
“It was night-time on a weekend and I was dealing with a man with a potential head injury. We were told pre-arrival that he had collapsed or was fitting and was HIV positive. I was treating him in the back of the ambulance and dressing his head wound when I stopped to put on a new pair of gloves. He then took real exception to me wearing gloves. I explained we had been told he was HIV positive and that we treated everybody the same, it was normal procedure.
“But he grabbed me and started punching me in the head. Then he bit my forearm. He’d already been bleeding from his mouth so when he bit me it was blood-on-blood contact. The police arrived and we got an escort but when we got to hospital he refused to give a blood sample.
“Luckily, or unluckily for me, about 20 minutes in he admitted to a nurse ‘just be careful, I’m HIV positive. This is why I support this bill, it would be compulsory to give a sample of either saliva or blood. I spent the next year thinking ‘I’m going to get the HIV virus’. I had to go on a set of anti-viral medicines and I was very poorly. I was already emotionally injured and these drugs made me physically ill too. My doctor even suggested I take time off. But I’m a bit of a stubborn paramedic, as my wife says. I prefer to say I’m ‘independent’. The guy got charged but I’m still vague on what happened to him.
“On another occasion, I was in a rapid response car and called to treat a man who had knocked himself out by slipping on wet stairs. His friend was upset that I wasn’t in an ambulance and wasn’t going to take him straight away to hospital. I explained I was there to give first aid quickly and my colleagues would arrive with an ambulance. But he pushed me down the stairs and I broke my wrist.
“It has got worse. I definitely get verbally abused every day now and physically pushed or shoved or worse at least once a week. That’s why we need this protection. At the moment, it’s hit and miss, this would give judges the power to give a minimum sentence. Eventually people are going to realise before pushing a paramedic over, ‘let me take a deep breath, I will end up with consequences if I push him’. What makes it worse is we are overstretched and over-demanded and when we arrive people are already irate that we weren’t quicker. And they take it out on us.”
Laura Barrett, 47, Paramedic in East London
“Verbal abuse is very, very common. It’s absolutely got worse. There’s more people, we are busier than ever. Drink and drugs plays quite a big factor in things and that’s more readily available.
“In 2015 I was called to a patient listed as fitting in a Budgens supermarket. It wa very busy, six o’clock in the evening, lots of people around. When it became apparent that he wasn’t fitting, he realised we knew and started verbally abusing us.
“We thought let’s get him out of the shop and that will calm him. However, when we got him outside the shop he became more and more aggressive. And then he kind turned. I said to my crewmate get back in the ambulance and we will lock the doors. He came up to my window, was smashing the glass saying ‘I’m going to kill you’. I actually though he was going to strangle me. It was very, very frightening.
“He started jumping on the bonnet saying to my crewmate ‘I’m going to kill you both’. It was a very busy junction, there must have been a hundred people around and nobody wanted to intervene. One girl that picked the phone up, dialed 999 and said ‘he’s trying to kill the crew and smash the ambulance’. He heard her say that and chased her into a very busy road, jumped her and smashed her face into the floor. She was a deputy head and she was the only person who decided to help.
“He was arrested and in the process he bit three police officers and he’s HIV positive. They had to go on the prophylactic drugs for six months. I spoke to one of the officers and he’s newly married, trying for a baby and now can’t try for a baby for six months.
“He pleaded guilty and was put away for a year, but he’s out now. I saw another crew and they asked me about him because he’s pseudo fitting again. And I thought ‘oh no’.
“Four years ago, I took a patient to hospital. I turned my back on her and completely unprovoked, she jumped out of her chair and grabbed my hair and started kicking and punching me. Clumps of my hair fell out.
“Maybe if there was a change in the law, it would be a deterrent. The doctors and nurses get a lot more abuse than us, because these people are waiting hours in hospital. Our time with them is short lived. I’ve been spat at too. I’d rather take the punches than be spat at. That’s the worst thing. You think of the diseases, the TB, the hepatitis, and we are going home to our families, it’s just a worry.”
Adam Heslop, 28, British Transport Police, Lancashire
“I’ve been a police officer for 10 years and it’s definitely got worse. It used to be that people just wouldn’t touch you, but now they don’t have any second thoughts about doing it.
“[One day last May] I heard a radio call from Lancashire Police saying they needed a breathyliser for a driver in Lancaster. It was 15 minutes from the end of my shift but I had one so I offered to help. They’d seen someone driving the wrong way round the one-way system and he looked drunk. This driver blows into the breathyliser and he goes over the limit. But as we were trying to get him out of the vehicle, his wife got out.
“She punched me in the face. I was in a state of shock, thinking ‘what’s just happened?’, then she punched me again. I sprayed her [with pepper spray] but she punched me again. And even as I tried to use my baton to defend myself, she punched me again. I only realised fully what she’d done when I saw the blood dripping from my nose as I tried to restrain her. She was in her late-40s, early-50s, quite short and sounded middle class. But she was drunk as well.
“She was prosecuted but was given a curfew order from 9pm to 7am for 30 days, told to pay £85 court costs and to compensate me with £100. For her, that £185 was not much more than a good night out. She broke my nose and basically ended up being mildly inconvenienced.
“There’s been a massive shift in people questioning police authority. On another occasion, a guy hit his wife on the platform at Preston rail station. He starts saying ‘you’re not arresting me’ and squares up to me. We got him on the ground but then a crowed formed around us of people saying ‘get off him, what’s he done wrong?’ If you arrest someone these days near a crowd, you think how long is it going to be until they grab me?
“We were the first police force to start carrying spit guards around. I was on a train when football fans were chanting nasty things and we intervened. One fan then clearly made a sound like he was going to spit at me, so the spit guard went on. Spitting at us has definitely got worse.”
Mick Johnson, 48, Police Constable, Hartlepool
“In May this year, on a Saturday evening. I was called to an incident, single crewed, to where a man was reported to be acting weird in a shop in Hartlepool. I went inside, got a couple of people out. There was a bloke standing next to the till with a half bottle of wine in his hand, off his head on something.
“I started talking to him and his first question was ‘are you here to kill me?’ And then all of a sudden he just went 25,000 feet and climbing and pulled out a rather large kitchen knife. Probably about nine inches long, and started waving it around.
“I got my incapacitant spray out, still tried to talk to him. I shouted at people to get out of the shop, but one didn’t. He came towards me with the knife, I backed out and he followed me out, but then went back in and closed the door. The problem was there was a female member of staff still in there and here was somebody armed with a knife. So rather than back off and contain it, I’ve got to try and go in there and ensure her safety. So I kicked the metal door to knock him off balance. At that point his arm’s come round and the knife has gone straight into my forearm.
“Two or three minutes later the cavalry arrived and he ended up being tasered by one of the other lads. He spent June and July in custody on remand. I attended court to read out a victim statement and the judge started giving him his sentences, two years in total. At that point I’m thinking, not bad, not brilliant. And then the judges said ‘I’m going to suspend that sentence for two years’. I left the courtroom before I said anything. I walked out because I could have got myself into trouble. To say I was gobsmacked is an understatement.
“They’ve got to do something to protect the emergency services now because it’s just getting ridiculous. We are definitely getting more police officers assaulted. One of my colleagues had his jaw broken. People are more willing to have a go at you. I’ve been 22 years in the police and it’s got worse, for sure. It just seems to be every day a cop is getting injured and nothing is happening.”
Nikki Williams, 34, Junior Sister, A&E ward, London.
“There is supposed to be zero tolerance of aggression towards staff, but in reality that doesn’t exist. So even when it’s reported to the police quite often the police don’t do anything about it. Particularly if they are psychiatric, intoxicated or have learning disabilities, so it can be really difficult. But a lot of the time people just aren’t being very nice and I don’t think being drunk should be an excuse to get away with being verbally or physically abusive towards people.
“Just recently, on a Friday night I called the police because and intoxicated man and his intoxicated relative were in A&E after he had had a head injury. He then was incredibly rude, wearing, being very intimidating. I stayed behind the desk where I then got a barrage of abuse, a bag of IV fluid thrown across the room, which then flicked into other cubicles. He pulled his canula out so there was blood flicked, which thankfully didn’t get me.
“About a week or so later, I got a reply from the police saying they weren’t going to take it any further because it wasn’t ‘in the public interest’. It’s not an unusual experience. A lot of people think we should expect it because we work in an A&E department, I don’t think anybody should go to work expecting to be abused in any way. Saturdays are the worst. But it is getting earlier on in the week, starting Thursday, Friday now.”