INCIDENTS of abuse against staff working in Keighley-district GP surgeries and at Airedale Hospital have soared since the start of the pandemic.

Employees have had to endure a barrage of abusive language and threats of physical violence, against themselves and family members.

And at one medical practice, staff were even threatened with being sexually assaulted.

District health and care leaders say face-to-face appointments are taking longer because of the measures in place to help prevent the spread of Covid-19, so patients are facing waits.

But people are being asked to "be kind", as staff continue to contend with the challenges of the pandemic and increasing workloads.

The plea has been issued by Act as One, a health and care partnership covering Bradford district and Craven.

Its membership includes the NHS, local authority, community and voluntary sector organisations and independent care providers.

Therese Patten, chief executive of Bradford District Care NHS Foundation Trust, said: "We are concerned at the level of abuse and aggression that employees are facing in our GP practices and we ask people to consider their actions.

"Our colleagues are also someone’s mother, father, sister or brother and this has an impact on their life outside work.

"Local NHS organisations are working together to consider all available options to increase capacity and see people as soon as possible across all our services.

"We’d like to thank the majority of patients who continue to show kindness and patience – we very much appreciate your support and understanding."

The partnership says GP practices are now providing more appointments than they did pre-pandemic. Latest figures show that nearly 85,000 additional people were seen between April and August this year, compared to the same period in 2019.

Around 60 per cent of people are seen face-to-face, following an initial assessment by phone or through video consultation.

Infection control measures are still needed to keep patients and staff safe, the partnership adds, which is impacting on health services’ capacity and how they work.

Dr James Thomas, a GP and clinical chair of NHS Bradford District and Craven Clinical Commissioning Group, said: "General practice is open and has been throughout the pandemic, but due to Covid-19 the way patients are seen in the NHS has changed. We have to take several steps to prevent the spread of infections to people who are frail, vulnerable and sick. These are the people we tend to see the most in general practice.

"This means that every appointment which is face-to face takes longer as we have to wipe down chairs and couches, clean rooms and change personal protective equipment after each patient. We are also unable to have lots of people in waiting rooms at any one time due to essential social distancing. The last thing we want is to bring people into our practices that may have Covid-19 and put either our patients or staff at risk of that infection."

Brendan Brown, chief executive of Airedale NHS Foundation Trust, said: "As we continue to see the impact of the pandemic on people’s health and wellbeing, higher numbers of people need care.

"In addition, people who previously delayed seeking help during the pandemic are now coming forward and require a greater level of care.

"We understand people’s frustrations. We’re doing all we can to see you as soon as we can whilst ensuring your care is provided in a low-risk environment.”

He added that the rise in incidents of abuse in GP practices is mirrored at Airedale Hospital.

Mr Brown said: "Alongside our colleagues in GP surgeries, we are aware that our people working in the hospital have reported an increase in incidents of aggressive, rude or challenging behaviour from some of those seeking care.

"Our colleagues are working incredibly hard to provide safe, high-quality care.

"We would like to remind everyone to be kind to each other and our staff, we are very much in this together. I’d like to extend my thanks to all of our staff who are working during a sustained period of unprecedented pressure."

The incidents of abuse have been condemned by community leaders.

Keighley's town mayor, Councillor Julie Adams, said: "This saddens me so much.

"No one should have to endure abuse of any sort in the workplace.

"I would ask those guilty of it to put themselves in the place of the people they abuse and try to understand what an impact it has, not just on those that they spout their vitriol at but also the victim’s family. What happened to ‘be kind’?

"We are living in very trying times, but there does appear to be a light at the end of the tunnel."

Keighley MP Robbie Moore is urging the police to investigate any incidents.

He said: "I am disgusted by the abuse being directed towards our NHS staff, who have gone above and beyond for us all throughout the pandemic – from treating those affected by Covid to delivering the incredible vaccination programme and ensuring people with all other illnesses and diseases are looked after.

"Nobody should face abuse for doing their job, so I am urging West Yorkshire Police to investigate any incidents so perpetrators face the full force of the law."