'I tasted death as he strangled me': NHS staff facing record violence on wards

Nurses Tegan Jones, Kazeema Afzal and Laura McSorley discuss the abuse they've faced at work, ITV News Investigations Editor Dan Hewitt reports

Extra words by Investigations Producer Mariah Cooper

A nurse who was almost strangled to death by a patient says NHS staff fear going to work, as an ITV News investigation finds violent assaults on hospital workers have risen annually for the past five years.

Kazeema Afzal has spoken for the first time since her attacker was found guilty of attempted murder after he assaulted her at Heath Lane Hospital in West Bromwich in July last year.

She said she “tasted death” as Kieffer Sutton pulled a string rope from his hooded top around her neck until she couldn’t breathe or cry for help.

Mr Sutton had expressed frustration at the care he was receiving at the hospital and became angry when her personal alarm went off when she was in his room.

"He came charging at me, he got the cord around my neck and tightened it. So hard," she told ITV News.

"That's when I tried to find a gap. When he knew I was trying to find a gap he did a knot and then tied again. He said 'it's going to be fun seeing you die you, you b***h. It's time for you to suffer your death".

"I tasted the fear of death. I really thought that's it. That's the end of me," Kazeema Afzal told ITV News

"I kept looking at the door thinking ok someone could come in. I can't scream. I couldn't even swallow. I tasted the fear of death. I really thought that's it. That's the end of me."

In January, Sutton was found guilty of attempted murder, and is now awaiting sentencing.

Kazeema is not the only NHS staff member to face violence working in hospitals.

The abuse in numbers

An ITV News investigation found there were at least 41,226 physical assaults on NHS staff working in hospitals in 2023.

This is an increase on the year before and a 21% jump since 2019, when 34117 attacks were recorded.

117 of the 180 NHS hospital trusts in England responded to our freedom of information request.

Our investigation has also revealed a 142% increase in reports to the police of violent assaults on hospital staff since 2019.

Sheffield Children’s NHS Foundation Trust had the highest increase of violent attacks on staff with a 223% rise since 2019, jumping from 190 to 614 in 2023.

The hospital told ITV News that the majority of the incidents recorded on our systems would be in the context of patient on staff, and would be minor incidents that are not police reportable and are due to a combination of reasons such as mental health condition, a behavioural condition or whilst receiving treatment.

At Liverpool University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust there were 804 assaults last year, up 176% since 2019.

Nottinghamshire Police had the highest number of reports of violence towards hospital staff in England, according to our data, with 646 incidents.

Offences included assaults causing serious harm, harassment, stalking and threats to kill.

On the wards at Queen's Medical Centre

We were invited to spend the day at Queen's Medical Centre, a major hospital under Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust, to spend time in Accident and Emergency and on the wards where staff have been assaulted by both patients and members of the public.

There are signs all over the hospital warning the public to respect members of staff and to not be violent or aggressive to them.

Almost every nurse we meet is wearing a small body camera for protection. The Trust introduced the cameras in December last year after a dramatic increase in both physical assaults and verbal abuse.

The number of assaults and incidents of harassment towards NHS staff has almost doubled in this Nottingham hospital in two years, from 1,237 to 2,370.

Nurse Laura McSorely says the number of attacks are "soul destroying because it puts you off coming to work"

Laura McSorley, a nurse at Queen's Medical Centre told us that violence at work has become the norm.

"Recently I was spat at by a patient I was trying to care for. It's an ongoing issue. So spitting, we've had punches thrown, people throw computers or take them off the desks.

"It is soul destroying because it puts you off coming to work. You need to get some resilience and you do learn about resilience and you do build a resilience working in A&E but you don't come to work to get attacked."

Another nurse I spoke to explained why she thinks violence is on the increase.

Tegan Jones said: "There's a lot of frustration around the NHS on the whole at the minute.

"The waiting times are getting longer and longer and its all the unnecessary pressures that build up into a lot of frustration that can then turn into aggression towards us. I've been called all sorts of names. I've been lunged at.

Nurse Tegan Jones says "frustration" over waiting times leads to "aggression" towards nurses

"That's why these have been brought in they definitely act as a deterrent to some people who might be getting agitated and frustrated and then they see it and then they are like I'm going to relax and watch my mouth a little bit."

NHS security guards roam the wards and the hospital corridors. They tell me violence towards them has increased significantly.

Sacha Azizi said "I have been here six years. It hasn't always been this way but covid potentially played a part and with the backlog... I think people's tolerance has shifted and that could explain some behavioural issues.

"I've been spat at, I've had a punch thrown at me and I have been kicked. But probably the worst one and the one that hits home is the racial abuse...I think the people we deal with they see the uniform and they think we are here to be punching bags sometimes."

"We have seen, a downward trend in terms of civility toward public servants and the NHS" says Head of Governance at Nottingham University Hospitals Gilbert George

Gilbert George, Head of Governance at Nottingham University Hospitals believes that society is becoming less tolerant.

He said: "In the last few years something is happening in society generally speaking.

"It may be the back end of Covid and general society as a whole we have seen, certainly, a downward trend in terms of civility toward public servants and the NHS also receives the tail end of that unfortunately."

Attacks on NHS staff can have life-changing consequences.

Kazeema has returned to the hospital, but is considering quitting the NHS.

She already found returning to work difficult following the death of her sister, nurse Areema Nasreen, who became one of the first NHS workers to die from coronavirus in April 2020.

She told me her sister was the last person she thought of as Sutton attacked her.

"My family said one sister has gone to the NHS and you would have been the second - isn't that a sign to leave?

"But I have said, no. If I leave its me running away from something I enjoy.

"NHS has been my second family especially after losing my sister knowing how she fought to the end, that passion has kept me there for now. I don't know if this fear will get worse and I might leave but at the moment its 50/50." she said.

ITV News took our findings to Health Secretary Victoria Atkins.

She admitted the government can do more to prevent violence towards NHS staff.

She said ITV News' investigation highlighted why the government had "introduced legislation a couple years ago focusing on assaults against emergency workers because first responders are the people we all rely on in our time of need and it is simply unacceptable anyone would think it is ok to abuse or physically hurt them."

"Of course waiting lists are absolutely critical," Health Secretary Victoria Atkins said when asked if waiting times were a key factor in increasing numbers of assaults against medical staff

"This is why within NHS we are investing £8.5 million to give people body cameras so that sadly, if people start to get angry they know they are being watched on the camera."

But she accepted that more needs to be done in response to concerns from hospital staff who have told ITV News that they believe the number one driver for patient frustration is waiting times.

In response the health secretary said "of course waiting lists are absolutely critical, we have begun to see some real progress. There is more to do and I fully accept that."

Steve Brine, Chair of Health and Social Care Committee told ITV News that despite patient frustration regarding waiting lists and delays, "it's never an excuse" for violence but more needs to be done to help bring down the pressures on the NHS.

Though waiting times for high it is "never an excuse" for violence, says Chair of Health and Social Care Committee Steve Brine

Mr Brine said: "There is lots of pressure on the system right now... In the short term it's up to senior management... to take responsibility for what's going on, on their shop floor. In the longer term we need to try and take down the pressure on the system by taking demand off of the system.

"We can only do that by reducing sickness and through preventative healthcare."

An NHS spokesperson said: “Any abuse or violence directed at NHS staff, in whatever setting they work, is unacceptable and every member of our hardworking staff has the fundamental right to be safe at work and it is our priority to eliminate violence and abuse, which will not be tolerated.

“NHS England's national Violence Prevention and Reduction Standard includes a new Violence Prevention toolkit that provides employers practical guidance, along with increased training to support staff to deal with violence with prompt mental health support available, which the NHS is investing £2 million annually."

Have you experienced violence as an NHS worker or patient? Please get in touch with us at investigations@itv.com

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