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Emergency services and other partner agencies across Dorset are working together to highlight the #Unacceptable trend in the number of verbal abuse, assaults or attacks their staff face and the rising number involving threats of COVID-19 infection.

The authorities say that during the COVID-19 outbreak, police, the ambulance service, the fire service, council, healthcare staff and other key workers have regularly been subjected to attacks where the spread of the virus has been used as a tool to assault or verbally abuse key workers.

Between 16 March and 14 April 2020 there were 40 occurrences of assault on police officers and emergency workers in Dorset. These have included being coughed and sneezed at with the threat of infection and physical attacks. Not all victims’ occupations are recorded and therefore this statistic does not encompass all key workers. However, there were a further five reports of COVID-19-related assaults involving a farmer, gas fitter, workshop engineer and two shop employees during this same time frame.

Chief Constable James Vaughan, of Dorset Police, said: ‘Our officers and staff, along with other emergency services colleagues and key workers, demonstrate commitment, courage and dedication on a daily basis. They signed up to help protect the public, not to come into work each day with the risk of being assaulted, attacked, verbally abused or intentionally infected by COVID-19. The impact this can have on them, their colleagues and their families can have serious consequences.

‘On 1 April 2020 officers were called to a report of an abusive man in Bournemouth. When cautioned for his behaviour, he coughed at officers and sneezed in their direction before saying “have some of the coronavirus”.’

Chief Constable James Vaughan continued: ‘Coughing and sneezing at officers is particularly abhorrent during the public health emergency we are all facing.

‘We will not tolerate assaults on our officers, our emergency services colleagues or key workers. Offenders will be dealt with robustly and we will bring criminal proceedings against those responsible.

‘Working with partners, Dorset Police is raising awareness of the risks officers, emergency services colleagues and essential key workers are taking to keep communities running. Any form of assault against emergency service staff or key workers will be dealt with swiftly.’

Martyn Underhill, Police and Crime Commissioner for Dorset, said:  ‘Our police officers, paramedics and other key workers are heroes who are enabling our county to keep going throughout this unprecedented situation. I’m sure the vast majority of the Dorset public would agree that assaulting these brave men and women, or deliberately coughing and sneezing over them, is a despicable and cowardly act. We will need the help of our key workers more than ever over the coming weeks – any assault on them is completely unacceptable and will not be tolerated.’

Graham Farrant, Chief Executive of BCP Council, said:  ‘Abuse of our staff is unacceptable at any time. It is not part of the job to tolerate any form of mistreatment. It is staggering to hear reports of abuse to both council and other frontline staff at a time when many are going above and beyond the call of duty, working in extremely challenging conditions to keep our communities safe.

‘Any kind of abuse directed towards these colleagues is completely unacceptable, and we will not hesitate to work with the police to deal harshly with anyone not treating our colleagues with the respect they deserve at this difficult time.’

Matt Prosser, Chief Executive of Dorset Council, said: ‘It is really sad to hear some of our officers and volunteers have received verbal abuse while carrying out essential work in our towns and villages. They are working hard to keep critical services and support available at this time.

“For example, if you park across a loading bay or on double yellow lines, it may mean essential deliveries to a local pharmacy cannot be made or access for emergency service vehicles is severely restricted. That’s why we are continuing to enforce these simple traffic regulations.

‘Or think of the uniformed care worker who is visiting to help a local resident at home so they don’t take up a valuable hospital bed. They have a vital role to play and need our support, not criticism or abuse.

‘Our key workers are following the rules around social distancing to stay safe and help protect our NHS whilst keeping vital supply chains going. Please respect our colleagues as they do their work during these difficult times.’

Chief Fire Officer Ben Ansell, of Dorset & Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service, said: ‘Firefighters and support staff are working hard with our colleagues to deal with the challenges that COVID-19 presents. They go to work to help their communities in their time of need, but they are people too.

‘Our emergency services and key workers do not deserve to be abused in any way for simply doing their job. To be intentionally infected with this virus or harmed in any way is completely unacceptable. This has serious effects, not only on their health and well-being but that of their families and loved ones as well – and we will not tolerate this. My staff and the colleagues they work with deserve to be treated with respect at work, now and in the future.’

Ken Wenman, Chief Executive of South Western Ambulance Service, said: ‘Our ambulance crews and control room staff are working tirelessly on the frontline to keep people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. I am so proud of and thankful for them all.

‘Any verbal, mental or physical assault against an emergency services staff member or key worker is completely unacceptable. Sadly we received 1330 incidents of violence and aggression towards our staff in the last year, which is an increase of 16% on the previous year. Unfortunately these incidents have continued during the COVID-19 crisis when our staff are working in an extremely challenging environment to protect and save lives.

‘We support whatever action is necessary to protect our staff from harm, and ensure those responsible for any attacks are prosecuted.’

Eugine Yafele, Chief Executive of Dorset HealthCare University NHS Foundation Trust, said: ‘It defies belief that there are people who would act in this way, threatening those who are trying to support and protect us all in these current challenging times. No-one, least of all key workers at the frontline battling this virus, should have to face such behaviour and threats. Please respect those who are working so hard to support our local communities.’

Dorset Police is asking people to support the campaign by sharing their #Unacceptable posts on social media. They are also reminding people to follow the national healthcare guidelines to stay at home unless necessary, respect social distancing and maintain good hygiene.

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