Midwives at a Scots maternity unit have been left “frightened” to go to work because of an unusual and sustained spike in abusive behaviour from the public.

Cheryl Clark, Chief Midwife for NHS Lanarkshire, said staff at University Hospital Wishaw had been enduring daily abuse for months in an area of the health service, ”not used to aggression”.

In one of the most serious incidents a midwife was forced to retreat to the safety of a ward after she was followed by a visitor to a staff changing room and challenged over visiting restrictions.

Managers had to call security to have the person removed and the unit has now been designated a high risk area while visits from anyone other than a spouse are now by appointment only.

Scottish Labour MSP Monica Lennon said she would asking the Scottish Government to assist the board to "get to the root of the problem".

The midwifery leader said she had never experienced abusive behaviour from the public on this scale in her 20-year-career. It has led to staff taking leave and “crying on shift”, she said.

She believes the rise in aggression may be linked to frustration over the continuation of some Covid infection control mitigations in hospitals including a requirement to wear masks.

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An increase in abuse directed at staff in other areas of the NHS such as A&E have been linked to patient frustration over lengthy waits but is “very unusual” in maternity care according to the midwifery leader.

“Midwives are frightened,” she said. “That the word they are using.

“I started my training in 1999 and qualified in 2002 and it’s fair to say that midwifery never got this level of abuse.

“We would maybe get some unhappy partners but very small complaints that were resolved very quickly.

“This is very, very different and unusual. It almost feels like what happens in A&E because they get it quite a lot.

“It’s not one or two incidents, it’s over a long period.”

She said that initially staff started to experience abuse in the ultrasound rooms where visitor numbers were restricted for Covid safety.

She said: “We were getting vile abuse and actually members of the public were apologising, saying ‘I’m sorry, we witnessed that.

Cheryl Clark, Chief Midwife for NHS Lanarkshire, said staff had been left frightened to go to work due to a rise in abusive incidents

“All because we were trying to adhere to safety.”

She said those incidents settled down but the aggression was then focussed on staff in postnatal wards where efforts are made to try to stagger visitors.

Security was called after a midwife was threatened by an family member after she asked a group of six to wind up their visit.

“She was at the end of her shift and went to the staff changing rooms,” said Ms Clark.

“She was followed there and when she came back out they were still there waiting for her.

“So she had to go back into the ward and security were on the scene very quickly.”

She said she had disclosed the incident because she felt it was important that the public understood what staff in the unit were experiencing.

She said: “We’ve got single rooms and we have bays and in the bays it’s four women and visitors were sneaking in in fives and sixes and midwives were trying to manage it."

The health board said the abuse had left midwives in tears on shift, with some taking sick leave on mental health grounds.

She said: “I think at the start it was, ‘yes we can manage this’ but it was getting to the point that the anxiety of it was affecting them.

“Certainly they are going to their charge nurses and saying ‘I’m struggling with this.’

“The junior midwives are finding it particularly difficult to manage," she added.

She said hospital security staff had been called to the maternity unit a number of times to protect workers.

“They don’t stand outside the ward because it’s a busy hospital but they are now aware that we are one of the higher risk areas,” she said.

She said maternity wards like other areas of the NHS were “desperate” to get back to person centred visiting, which means there are no restrictions on numbers but this had led to wards becoming overcrowded at a time when Covid cases remain high.

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She said: “We want everyone to be able to come in and have access to this newborn family so we had said that the birthing partner can come in 24/7 and the second visitor could come in 9am to 9pm.

“But because of that they were all coming in in bursts.”

The unit has now implemented an appointment system where the second visitor is restricted to two hours per day and by appointment only and managers hope this will lead to a reduction in aggressive incidents.

She said: “The last two years have been difficult for society and of course the NHS had to go nto a different level of access.

"That’s extremely difficult and we recognise that.

Cheryl Clark, Chief Midwife for NHS Lanarkshire, said staff had been left frightened to go to work due to a rise in abusive incidents

“Some of the feedback we are getting from families is that society is getting back to normal and masks are not in use, and social distancing is not there but healthcare still has policies in place. 

“I think that is frustrating the public. ‘Why should they wear a mask, why are there limits round a bedside when everything is back to normal.

“I could go to a nightclub tonight and we could all be together, you could go to a supermarket, go on a plane but we can’t all be together here.”

She said the support from the community had been “phenomenal” after the health board released a video urging the public to respect maternity staff and said there had been no recent incidents reported.

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She said the appointments system was not a long term measure but was “necessary” in view of the severity of the attacks.

Scottish Labour and Cooperative representative, Monica Lennon MSP, said: “Staff being verbally abused and subjected to vile language as they care for new mums and babies is just disgusting.

“Restricting visiting due to staff abuse is an emergency measure, not a long-term solution.

"I will be asking the Scottish Government to assist NHS Lanarkshire to get to the root of these problems.

"Nothing short of a zero-tolerance approach to abuse and harassment will do.”

Figures show there were 12,500 cases of both physical assault and verbal abuse inflicted on NHS Scotland staff last year.

More than 7,000 workers suffered physical attacks whilst a total of 5,496 reports of verbal abuse and threats were logged.

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde was among the worst affected with 2,479 assaults and threats recorded in the first six months of 2021, and also noted close to 100 attacks in the first eight days of August.

Another freedom of information request, this time by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) revealed that police are recording an average of three violent incidents at GP surgeries across the UK every day. 

Doctors told of angry patients breaking doors down and threatening to stab them.

While attacks on hospital staff have also increased, doctors’ leaders say there is a different dynamic in GP surgeries, which are smaller and do not have the same security arrangements.