• Health and care bodies take aim at online trolls
  • Abuse of NHS and care staff must stop
  • Anti-vaxxers and Covid-deniers abuse health professionals

A HARD-CORE minority of so-called ‘anti-vaxxers’ and ‘Covid deniers’ has taken their campaign from the streets to social media to sinister effect.

As the Covid pandemic has progressed and restrictions eased, protestors – fuelled by misinformation and unfounded conspiracy theories – have become more violent in their actions and language.


Struck off nurse Kate Shemirani: Said nurses were ‘complicit in genocide’

Last week, the Metropolitan Police confirmed they were probing comments made by prominent anti-vaxxer Kate Shemirani.

At a rally in Trafalgar Square, she called on her followers to send her the details of doctors and nurses battling the pandemic.

She compared them to the war criminals convicted at the Nuremberg Trials after the Second World War.

A recent and allegedly ‘spontaneous’ protest outside the Cardiff home of Wales’s First Minister Mark Drakeford brought home how extremists have influenced others to harass and harangue those they target as part of their anti-everything Covid fantasies.

However, targeting the First Minister is – perhaps – less troubling than the actions of some extremists who have targeted and abused NHS staff.


Subjected to vile abuse: Gill Walton, RCM Chief Executive

Medical staff and NHS workers have been abused for insisting that visitors to clinics, GP practices, and hospitals wear masks.

Deluded anti-vaxxers have gone from spreading lies and fantasies originating on social media to direct abuse of healthcare professionals.

Matters came to a head earlier this week with vile and violent language directed towards the Royal College of Midwives Chief Executive, Gill Walton.

In the eyes of online trolls, Ms Walton’s ‘crime’ was to campaign for pregnant mothers to protect themselves and their unborn children by getting vaccinated against Covid-19.

Among the more measured responses from the lunatic fringe were a comparison to child-sex killer Myra Hindley, another to a Nazi war criminal, and one suggesting she should be killed.

The torrent of threats and violent language has led to Police involvement and increased calls to prevent anonymous use of social media, including YouTube and messaging apps.

Condemnation for the abuse Gill Walton faced and the continuing lower-level vitriol directed at healthcare workers has united unions and professional bodies representing staff.


The voices of a criminal mob: A selection of tweets aimed at Ms Walton

The Herald approached Wales’s leading staff bodies to respond to the poison directed at those staff who were hailed as heroes at the pandemic’s height.

The Royal College of Midwives told us: “The RCM absolutely condemns the online threats and vile abuse aimed at our Chief Executive Gill Walton.

“We will not stand for this, and hateful posts and comments have been reported to Twitter and other social media platforms as well as the police.

“We are also hearing reports from our members and other NHS staff that they are also receiving abuse and threats for discussing COVID-19 vaccination with pregnant women.

“Since the pandemic began, we have worked hard to get the best evidence-based guidance and support to our members and to pregnant women.

“In April, as soon as there was enough evidence about the safety of the vaccine and the JCVI recommended its use in pregnancy, we began briefing RCM members and have worked with the media to amplify our message.

“The latest data has shown us that over 95% of pregnant women hospitalised with Covid-19 did not have the vaccine, and that’s why it’s never been more important for the RCM, midwives and all maternity staff to recommend the vaccine.

“We will continue to stand up and call out those who unfairly attack any healthcare professional for doing their job.”


Paul Summers, UNISON Cymru Wales lead officer for health, said: “Healthcare staff have worked in unimaginable conditions throughout the pandemic with one objective in mind: caring for the sick.

“Covid’s devastation frightened NHS workers, and they want people to protect themselves and their loved ones by having the vaccine. That they should be grossly abused for encouraging public safety is appalling. We are public servants, and we want to keep people safe and out of hospital.

“All threats should be reported to the police to investigate, and NHS staff need to hear our political leaders condemn the abuse unreservedly.

“The NHS already has a zero-tolerance policy against the verbal and physical abuse of staff, and UNISON will work with health boards to ensure they offer their full support to any staff members affected.

“Now is not the time to be attacking public service workers, rather people should join with them in calling for a fair pay rise.”


BMA Cymru Wales council chair Dr David Bailey said: “As healthcare professionals, we’re always saddened and appalled to see abuse directed at staff. This is never acceptable and should never be tolerated.

“Sadly, we are seeing more complaints from patients and visitors regarding the more virtual way of working due to the pandemic and anecdotally, there seem to be increasingly negative reactions to asking visitors to wear masks in healthcare settings.

“Our members have also noticed abuse directed at healthcare colleagues on social media from members of the public. They seem to react to their posts about the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine and other related precautions, such as wearing masks.

“Doctors and their colleagues are doing their absolute best, day-in-day-out, to provide care to their local communities, and we know that the vast majority of our patients appreciate the hard work we are doing.

“Even before the pandemic, we were vastly understaffed, and we’re concerned that a rise in abusive behaviour will drive more and more talented and experienced doctors away from the NHS at a time when we need them most.

“We would urge anyone who has experienced abuse at their place of work to report it to their manager to ensure the matter is appropriately addressed.

“Each health board will have their own way of dealing with this but as a union we do want to see more done to protect staff in their place of work.”


Medical staff and care workers unite: “We will not tolerate abuse or violence”

This Wednesday (August 4), health organisations gave their signatures to a letter to The Times addressing the issue.

Gill Walton said: “Over the past 16 months, health and care workers have been working under incredible stress, with increased demands and less staff because of the pandemic, yet still they have strived to provide the best possible care.

“I know the vast majority of the public are incredibly grateful for that dedication and commitment. However, too many health and care workers have faced abuse from a small but vocal minority, from COVID deniers to anti-vaxxers.

“Our midwives, doctors, nurses, porters, cleaners, everyone working for the NHS, has the right to safety and respect in the workplace.

“To those who abuse us for simply making polite requests to wear masks or to maintain social distance in hospitals or GP practices, to those who deny the existence of the pandemic or the science of vaccination, to those who issue death threats or incite violence against us, we say enough is enough.”

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, Chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, said: “For the last eighteen months, everyone in healthcare has shown what incredible things can be achieved if we pull together.

“We now need to be more united than ever and show our solidarity by calling out the aggressive and unreasonable behaviour of a small minority.”

Chief nursing officer for England Ruth May said: “We will not tolerate abuse or violence towards our colleagues.”

She added: “Despite the despicable actions of a minority, the overarching support we have seen from the wider public has helped carry us through the pandemic and we are proud to have helped millions of patients over the last year.”


The right to protest: But not the right to harass or abuse

The letter to The Times was signed by the RCM, the RCN, Unison, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the NHS Confederation, and the British Medical Association.

It said it was time for the whole NHS workforce to “come together to stand against the vitriol to which we have been subjected”.

The health leaders said a “small but sinister tide has been rising of people who, at best, seek to undermine the important public health advice we give, and, at worst, incite abuse and violence against us”.

They stressed: “We will no longer tolerate the unacceptable behaviours of those who respond aggressively to polite requests to wear masks in our hospitals and GP practices, or who stand outside hospitals shouting denials of the pandemic’s existence, and who use their platforms to incite violence against us.”

During Covid-19, the support from the majority of the public had helped carry staff through the “most challenging period any of us have ever faced”, noted the letter.

“Today we ask again for their support, to stand with us and call out the hate and abuse by this small aggressive minority,” it added.

UNISON General Secretary Christina McAnea said: “The pandemic is real, and the virus can kill.

“Anti-vaxxers and Covid deniers are entitled to their opinions. But they must be prevented from hounding dedicated NHS staff, who must be protected so they can do their jobs in peace.”

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “NHS staff provide life-saving and life-changing care every day in often difficult circumstances – they deserve to be treated with respect.

“Any form of attack on NHS Wales staff is completely unacceptable.

“We are working with NHS Wales employers to eradicate physical or verbal assaults on staff.”