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Editorial: Zero tolerance for attacks on emergency workers

It is perhaps only when we find ourselves having to call on the support of emergency workers that we truly appreciate the invaluable public service they provide.

Police, firefighters, paramedics and other medical staff are there when our need is greatest and perform highly skilled work often in the most pressurised of situations.

It makes it all the harder to comprehend, therefore, why anyone would want to assault an emergency worker in the course of serving the community.

Shocking figures illustrate how staff are coming under attack on a daily basis.

Police are the emergency service most often targeted, with the PSNI saying the number of assaults resulting in injury has hit a five-year high – and almost doubled since 2019.

There were also thousands of attacks on health service staff last year, with ambulance workers among the most likely to be on the receiving end.

A former NHS nurse, Bernadette Vassallo, has launched an online campaign calling for tougher sentences for those who target emergency workers.

More than a thousand people have signed a petition calling for the extension of Harper’s Law to Northern Ireland as well as changes to legislation around what is classed as a deadly weapon.

Harper's Law, named after 28-year-old English police constable Andrew Harper who was dragged to his death by a car while investigating a report of a burglary in England in 2019, introduced mandatory life sentences for anyone convicted of killing an emergency worker.

It went on the statute book for England and Wales last June and has been backed by the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, which has spoken about the potentially serious effects of attacks on officers.

Staff who are kicked, punched, bitten or worse in the course of their duty often need time off work to recover, putting added pressure on colleagues who have to fill the gap.

The federation wants tougher sentencing guidelines for assailants and it is hard to disagree that a clear signal is required that such violence will not be tolerated.

In practice that should mean jail sentences for those convicted of assaults if punishment is to be a real deterrent and the rising tide of violence is to be curbed.

The message must go out that an attack on emergency workers represents an attack on all of society and the vital services they perform to keep us all safe.

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