Zero tolerance – can it work?

Violence against NHS staff is on the increase – but can a new ‘zero tolerance’ Government strategy solve the problem?

  • Date: 29 April 2019

VIOLENCE against healthcare staff has been an increasing problem in the NHS.

In October of last year, Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, announced a new strategy to tackle the issue in England, including specific measures to better protect staff and prosecute offenders.

Key action points included:

  • better collaborative working between the NHS and the Crown Prosecution Service to seek prosecutions and assist victims in giving evidence
  • improved training in dealing with workplace violence
  • improved psychological support for staff who are victims of work-related violence
  • Care Quality Commission (CQC) to include scrutiny of violent incidents as part of its inspection regime.

Results from a 'staff survey' in England found that more than 15 per cent of NHS workers had experienced actual physical violence during the previous 12 months, which is the highest estimated figure for five years. The new strategy will allow staff to more easily record assaults and other incidents of abuse or harassment in order to help understand the reasons behind this rise in reported violence.

Trusts will be expected to investigate each incident and ensure that the lessons learned are used to protect staff from future incidents. Plans are also being drawn up for violence and abuse data from across the NHS to be reported nationally in order to determine which staff are most vulnerable to violence and what action can be taken to protect them.

The new plans follow on from the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act, which has been brought into law and will see the maximum prison sentence for assaulting an emergency worker double from six months to a year.

Matt Hancock said: "We will not shy away from the issue – we want to empower staff and give them greater confidence to report violence, knowing that they will see meaningful action from trusts and a consistent prosecution approach from the judicial system.

Part of the announcement also included a relaunch of the so-called ‘zero tolerance’ approach, which aims to protect the NHS workforce from deliberate violence and aggression from patients, their families and the public at large.

The new strategy acknowledges that a zero tolerance approach is indicated in cases where “deliberate violence” is used against NHS workers. This appears to be a subtle change from the original NHS zero tolerance campaign, introduced throughout the UK in the 1990s, to reject all aggression and violence against NHS workers. The reality is that the triggers for violence are complex and multi-faceted and it quickly became clear that such a basic approach to its management was in some cases unhelpful and unworkable.

It is fairly easy to justify taking substantive action, such as removal from the practice list, against an individual who has behaved in an unacceptable manner through the use of personal abuse, threats and aggression or violent assault. But this becomes more problematic where there is an underlying illness or condition present, or circumstances where someone’s behaviour is out of character, or they lack insight into their actions.

The original NHS zero tolerance strategy gradually made way for the development of more flexible and circumstance-driven ‘unacceptable behaviour policies’, which attempt to mitigate where appropriate but also allow for decisive action to be taken in circumstances where aggression and violence is premeditated and deliberate.

At MDDUS we regularly receive calls from members seeking advice on the removal of patients from practice lists, and the use of aggressive and violent behaviour against workers is certainly a compelling reason for doing so. However, we would encourage members to carefully consider each case on its own merits, rather than simply relying on a blanket ‘zero tolerance’ policy. Be sure to follow the GMC’s guidance on Ending your professional relationship with a patient, which highlights the importance of steps such as warning the patient of your intentions in writing. Members should also contact our advice line for specific help.


  • Adopt a risk assessment approach to the management of workplace violence and aggression that fully considers both the prevailing circumstances and any mitigating factors.
  • Ensure that all incidents of work-related violence are recorded and reported through appropriate health and safety systems and, if appropriate, to the police.
  • Have a clear and comprehensive policy in place for dealing with aggressive or violent patients, including the steps to be taken when considering removing such patients from a practice list.

Alan Frame is a risk adviser at MDDUS

This page was correct at the time of publication. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

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Practice Manager is published twice yearly and distributed to MDDUS practice managers and others with management responsibility in dental and medical surgeries. It features articles on employment law, health and safety, risk as well as profiles of practices across the UK. Browse our current and back issues below.
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