Dr Katherine Henderson, a senior A&E consultant in London, is president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, which represents A&E doctors.
“It is a sad reality that in recent months there has been a rise in abuse directed towards healthcare workers, but this abuse is not something new to frontline staff or emergency departments. It was bad before the pandemic, but there’s a changed atmosphere now.
“During the pandemic people were being very positive about healthcare workers. But now the public are frustrated that services aren’t getting back to normal. Maybe people who weren’t the source of abuse before are now being the source of abuse. Abuse may be physical or verbal, it may be through social media, or it may be racial or misogynistic.
“We know of cases where patients have violently threatened staff which has resulted in court cases and perpetrators being charged. Whatever form this abuse comes in, it is absolutely unacceptable. It is frightening and dangerous for staff and for other patients in the department.
“In some emergency departments, senior nurses or sisters wear body cameras. Body cameras act as a deterrent and record incidents. This provides assurance to staff. Despite the sad reality that in some cases this level of deterrent and protection is required, abuse in all forms is still directed at staff.
One group of abusive people say things like ‘we pay our taxes, we pay your salaries’
“People are being angry – very angry – with us. They are angry about long waits, about having to stand outside emergency departments in queues, about delays in ambulances coming, including to take their relative home from hospital. The public haven’t really caught up with how struggling the whole NHS is.
“Incidents can occur when we explain to patients coming into the emergency department that we can’t organise an outpatient consultation or elective procedure that they want. Previously people understood that we couldn’t make things happen more quickly for them, but now they get angry with us, and angry in an irrational way. One group of abusive people say things like ‘we pay our taxes, we pay your salaries’.
“We’re also seeing an increase in the number of people presenting who have been drinking heavily or taken drugs. That fell during Covid but cases are now going back up. They have no appreciation of the need for additional infection control and the social-distancing measures hospitals use, and aren’t prepared to wear a mask. So we get into confrontational conversations while trying to help our other patients.
“Emergency care doctors have been living a life of threats for years. But we’re more vulnerable because everyone in the workforce is completely shattered and the last thing they need is dealing with these issues, and having a public that doesn’t understand the pressures we are under and are taking out their frustrations on us when we are going as hard as we can.
“A&E staff hate the abuse; they absolutely hate it. Patients can get frustrated if there are long waiting times, some may become agitated and aggressive. But staff are always there, working their very hardest to keep patients safe and deliver high-quality, quick and effective care. Abuse is never tolerated, abuse does not improve the situation, and it does not help patients get seen quicker.”
As told to Denis Campbell