Maximum jail sentences for violent offences against emergency workers could be doubled to two years in England and Wales, under proposals put forward by ministers.
The proposals, which will be subject to consultation, follow a surge in assaults against NHS workers and police officers during the coronavirus lockdown even as other crime fell. Assaults on emergency workers rose 24% in the four weeks to 7 June, compared with the same period last year, with some frontline workers spat at and attacked as they worked.
The Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act was introduced in 2018, stipulating that anyone found guilty of common assault or battery of a police officer, firefighter, prison officer or paramedic faced a maximum 12 months in prison.
Judges must also consider tougher sentences for more serious offences, such as grievous bodily harm or sexual assault, if the victim was an emergency worker.
The Ministry of Justice said it would consult with the emergency services, judiciary and others on whether the maximum penalty should be doubled to two years in jail.
The justice secretary, Robert Buckland, said: “Being punched, kicked or spat at should never be part of the job for our valiant emergency workers who put their lives on the line to keep the public safe. Now more than ever they must be able to do their extraordinary work without the fear of being attacked or assaulted, which is why we’re determined to look at how our laws can protect them further.
“We will continue to do everything in our power to protect our police, prison officers, firefighters and paramedics, and ensure those who seek to harm them feel the full force of the law.”
The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) previously said attacks on NHS workers, police officers and fire service staff had increased during the lockdown, driven by a surge in spitting and coughing attacks on staff.
In 2019, more than 11,000 people were prosecuted for assaulting emergency workers, and a quarter of those found guilty received a suspended sentence or immediate custody.
Common assault can cover acts such as a push, shove or being spat at. When an emergency worker is seriously injured, prosecutions will take place under more serious offences that have far longer sentences. The consultation will run for four weeks.
There have been calls from police leaders, including the Police Federation, which represents tens of thousands of rank-and-file officers, to increase the maximum sentence for assaults on emergency workers.
The home secretary, Priti Patel, said: “Our police officers, firefighters and other emergency workers go above and beyond every single day, running towards danger to protect us all. They are our frontline heroes who put their lives on the line every single day to keep us safe, and yet some despicable individuals still think it’s acceptable to attack, cough or spit at these courageous public servants.
“This consultation sends a clear and simple message to the vile thugs who assault our emergency workers: you will not get away with such appalling behaviour and you will be subject to the force of the law.”