More than 500 NHS Highland staff have been victims of a “shameful” series of attacks over the past 12 months.
The vast majority were directed at nurses working amidst the toughest of conditions as they have helped battle the pandemic.
And most also involved acts of violence. One assault even took place in a hospital operating theatre.
The figures were obtained by the Press and Journal through Freedom of Information and reveal there were 528 assaults recorded across the health authority’s sites, including its hospitals at Raigmore in Inverness, Belford in Fort William and Caithness General in Wick.
Of those, 469 of the assaults were directed at nurses. with other victims including social care workers, NHS staff employed in midwifery and community nurses.
In 405 of the 528 incidents, the assaults included physical attacks.
While the figures represent a reduction on previous years – there were 766 in 2016, 807 in 2017, 796 in 2018, and 856 in 2019 – they were condemned by politicians from all parties.
Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch SNP MSP Kate Forbes said: “These figures are shameful.
“They are astronomically high for nursing and personal care staff.
“In a year when our NHS workers have been on the front line, I’m taken aback at the number of assaults on our hardworking NHS staff.
“I realise there will be all sorts of reasons, but there is absolutely no excuse for assaulting NHS workers who are there to care and to serve.
“It is shocking that this kind of behaviour is taking place and I commend our NHS workers for all that they do.”
The figures reveal NHS Highland staff have faced 3,101 physical attacks in just five years in the last five years, with the highest number – 721 – taking place in 2017.
‘We must look after our hardworking health care professionals’
Highlands and Islands Conservative MSP Edward Mountain said: “NHS Highland staff should never have to face verbal or physical attacks.
“A zero-tolerance approach must be taken and that must mean those found guilty of attacking health care staff receive the full force of the law.
“We must look after our hardworking health care professionals, who do so much to look after us.”
Highlands and Islands Labour MSP David Stewart, who is also Labour’s shadow public health minister, said no-one should have to face the threat of assault at work.
“These figures show that nurses and care workers, as front-line workers, bear the brunt of abuse and attack,” he said.
“The stresses and strains of staff shortages and NHS underinvestment, combined with many patients being under the influence of drugs and alcohol, are fuelling the situation.
“Increased staff training and tougher penalties on those who carry out the assaults could help, but we shouldn’t look at these figures as a fact of life but as a shame on our society and attitudes and actions need to change.”
An NHS Highland spokeswoman said: “NHS Highland has a zero-tolerance approach to verbal and physical abuse directed toward our staff, and staff are actively encouraged to report all incidents regardless of severity.
“While we acknowledge that numbers of assaults on staff within NHS Highland has decreased it is still absolutely unacceptable for anyone to be assaulted at their work.
“However, we recognise that a number of these assaults are as a result of distressed patients who are unaware of what they are doing.
“NHS Highland has a training programme for staff on how to handle violence and aggression.
“We also have measures in place to support staff who have experienced this.”