LONDON -- MORE THAN 1,000 health and emergency workers a week are being attacked while carrying out their duties.
Doctors, nurses, ambulance crews, health visitors and firefighters across Britain are being subjected to frightening assaults as they go about helping the public.
The scale of the problem is only now becoming clear, with increasing numbers of health professionals and emergency workers complaining that they have been beaten up, punched, kicked and pelted with bricks and stones.
The latest figures show there were at least 57,205 attacks on health and emergency workers last year, although the true figure is thought to be much higher as many cases go unreported.
Last week, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) revealed that assaults on firefighters had leapt from 1,300 to 1,500 last year, with crews in some areas routinely attacked.
But the disturbing catalogue of assaults also extends to other workers in the front line of public care.
The Sunday Telegraph has learnt that during 2007, nearly 56,000 health workers were subjected to physical assaults.
More than 1,000 ambulance workers were attacked, along with 10,000 nurses and hospital staff. There were nearly 3,500 attacks on GPs, health visitors and other primary care staff, such as midwives. Most attacks -- 41,000 -- were on staff in mental health units, where the risk of physical confrontation with patients is greater.
The figures suggest that care workers are no longer regarded as off-limits and certain members of the public are all too ready to resort to violence against the very people trying to help them.
Karen Jennings, head of health for Britain's largest health union, Unison, said: "It is shameful that nurses, paramedics and other NHS staff face the threat of violence at work on an almost daily basis.
"The figures only include physical assaults and those that have been reported. We know that many staff face verbal abuse and many attacks go unreported.''
According to a survey by the British Medical Association (BMA), a third of doctors have experienced violence or abuse in the past year, with trainee doctors the most likely victims of violence, followed by GPs. The range of assaults included being kicked, bitten, punched, hit, spat at and even stabbed.
Women doctors were more likely to be attacked than men. In one incident a GP was knifed in the stomach at her Glasgow practice. Dr Helen Jackson, 56, required emergency treatment last August after being stabbed three times.
She survived only because she was wearing a thick woollen jacket which prevented the blade reaching any vital organs.
Johannah Langmead, 23, a trainee GP, suffered fractured eye sockets and a broken cheekbone in an assault at a surgery in Prudhoe, Northumberland. The attack, by a man with mental problems, left her suffering flashbacks and trauma.
In more than half the cases, no action was taken against the perpetrators. According to the survey, some doctors have come to regard assaults as part of the norm.
Hamish Meldrum, the BMA's chairman, said: "We're talking about people who go to work in order to try to alleviate pain and treat ill health. The fact they may expect to be punched, kicked or shouted at cannot be tolerated.''
The Royal College of Nursing reports that more than half of nurses think the risk of violence or abuse has increased in the past two years and that more than a third have been assaulted or harassed.
Last Saturday, a midwife in Peterborough was attacked by a thug who stole her medical bag, prompting health managers to issue personal alarms to community midwives.
Attacks on firefighters are so commonplace that many crews no longer bother to report them. The FBU estimates that there are 40 attacks every week. Last October, youths petrol-bombed a crew in Liverpool and pelted firemen with bricks in Runcorn, Cheshire. In August, three firefighters in Bristol were hurt after paving stones were hurled at them. Health unions have called on NHS trusts to do more to protect staff by increasing staffing levels so that they do not feel so isolated.
They also want the criminal justice system to take a more robust approach to assailants.
Many health professionals, however, believe the attacks are a reflection of a more violent society.
Ms Jennings said: "We have become a 'me society', where lots of people know their 'rights' and are quick to claim them, sometimes violently. But when it comes to their responsibilities, these have gone out of the window.''One veteran paramedic said: "I used to think of my uniform as my protection -- people knew I was there to do a job and wouldn't touch me. Now they treat it as a target.''