Practice teams delivering COVID-19 jabs face torrent of abuse

Three quarters of primary care staff have faced verbal abuse linked to the COVID-19 vaccination programme and more than half have experienced threats of physical assault or had their premises defaced or damaged, a poll suggests.

Three quarters of respondents to a survey of 222 GPs, nurses and practice managers said they had faced verbal abuse from patients unhappy about issues including eligibility, prioritisation, safety and timing of COVID-19 vaccination.

Primary care staff reported being shouted or sworn at, and facing threats of complaints or hearing phrases such as: 'It will be your fault if I die', from patients, according to the poll by medico-legal organisation the Medical Protection Society (MPS) 

The findings come just weeks after polling by the Institute of Practice Management also found three quarters of primary care staff face abuse daily - including assaults, threats, racism and sexism.

COVID-19 vaccine

In the latest poll, one GP reported that a patient threatened to kill themselves if they weren’t given the first vaccine ahead of schedule.

The survey also found that 52% of primary care staff had been threatened with physical abuse. Notes posted through front doors or into prescription boxes had left staff in fear for their safety, respondents said.

A total of 53% of respondents also reported that their surgery or vaccination centre had been vandalised or defaced - with anti-vaccination graffiti or posters put up, or signs pulled down. One respondent reported a fire alarm being set off to disrupt work at a vaccination centre.

Nearly two thirds of respondents said abuse and complaints around the COVID-19 vaccination programme had affected wellbeing for them personally or their team as a whole, while 71% said extra workload linked to the programme had affected wellbeing.

Practice teams abused

MPS medico-legal lead for risk prevention Dr Pallavi Bradshaw said: 'Dedicated healthcare workers and volunteers have played a part in making what is the biggest inoculation programme the country has seen a huge success. Many have found it rewarding and the majority of patients have been positive and grateful.

'GP surgeries have however clearly borne the brunt of those with frustrations, and it is shocking and appalling that our frontline workers have been facing this sort of abuse. When this is set against the extreme pressure primary care has faced since the start of the pandemic, it is unsurprising that the mental wellbeing of GPs and other practice staff is suffering.'

She warned that GPs were 'mentally and physically exhausted' - and called for more support for wellbeing alongside a 'zero-tolerance policy to abuse' across the NHS.

Responding to the findings, BMA GP committee executive team member Dr Krishna Kasaraneni said: 'Frustration for whatever reason should not be taken out on practice staff, who are trying their best to meet the needs of all patients when they contact the practice.

Threats of violence

'Abusive language and even more seriously, threats of physical violence, can never be justified, and it can have a severe impact on staff’s mental health and wellbeing. No one should expect to come to work and be abused.

'While we understand that patients may be distressed, in pain or anxious when contacting their practice, we’d always ask that they be kind and understanding to staff, in the same way we’d expect staff to be to patients.'

An NHS spokesperson said: 'General practice teams have played a critical part in the life-saving vaccination programme while also offering appointments for patients during the pandemic.

'Patients should of course be able to access needed NHS services, but staff should never be subjected to abuse for doing their job providing that care.'

A DHSC spokesperson added: 'This kind of behaviour is inexcusable and will not be tolerated. The vaccination programme has saved more than 27,000 lives and prevented an estimated 7.2m infections in England alone. NHS staff, alongside brilliant volunteers, have worked tirelessly to protect us all throughout the pandemic and they deserve our full support.

'Through the NHS Violence Reduction Programme we are taking action to protect staff against violence and aggression, and the NHS continues to work closely with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to bring offenders to justice.'

In Leeds, the local CCG has launched a zero tolerance campaign against abuse and aggression towards staff and patients, including resources practices can download.

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