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Sat 23 October 2021

Attacks on transport staff have increased markedly during the pandemic, relative to passenger numbers, reports Sascha Lavin for the Byline Intelligence Team

The number of attacks on British Transport Police (BTP) per passenger journey more than doubled in 2020, analysis by Byline Intelligence Team reveals.

The number of customer journeys on public transport plummeted during the pandemic. While attacks on officers saw a slight decrease, the number remained comparatively high given the fewer journeys that were taken. 

Data obtained by a Freedom of Information request shows that the number of attacks on BTP officers in 2020 was 8.25% lower than the previous year. Capacity on public transport across the UK from 1 March 2020 to 1 March 2021 saw reductions of more than 50% from 2019/20 levels. National rail journeys fell by 75% during this time period, bus journeys outside London by 65%, tube journeys in London by 76%, and bus journeys in the capital by 54%.

Despite an overall lack of passengers, there were 900 attacks on BTP officers in 2020, compared to 981 in 2019. It seems that attacks could have included officers being spat or coughed on – risking passing on the Coronavirus.Per passenger journey, attacks therefore more than doubled on each public transport route from 2019 to 2020.

In a submission to the Government’s Transport Select Committee in June 2020, the BTP wrote how it was “disappointed to report that we have had instances of officers being attacked when engaging people about reasons for travel. One of our officers was knocked unconscious, another spat at by a person claiming to have the virus.”

Chair of the BTP Federation, Nigel Goodband, explained to Byline Times how “throughout the pandemic, my colleagues have experienced disgraceful abuse and attacks. In some cases officers have been spat on or coughed at by people claiming to have the virus, leaving them worried for their own health and that of their families… These officers run towards danger and routinely put their safety second to that of the public and this is how some sectors of society repay them,” he added.

PC James Robinson suffered a “sustained attack” at Bexleyheath Station in February 2020. Liam Byron, 23, bit down on the BTP officer’s finger to avoid being arrested. Bryon was sentenced to two years and 28 days in prison.  

In April 2020, two BTP officers required hospital treatment after they were attacked by Nelson Nelson, 28, at Nottingham railway station. The officers had stopped the man and asked if his journey was essential and in line with COVID-19 restrictions. The passenger also hit a police dog several times with a plank of wood with a nail in it. 

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Protecting Frontline Workers

Research conducted by the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) workers’ union found 58% of its members had been attacked by passengers since the beginning of the pandemic. Of these, 88% had been verbally abused, 13% reported being racially harassed and 6% had been sexually assaulted. 

Now, Labour MP Olivia Blake hopes to make abuse of a public-facing worker a specific criminal offence – including transport staff and shop-workers. She has launched a public consultation and a backbench Bill designed to protect workers. 

Speaking in Parliament, Blake said: “COVID-19 has made this growing problem even worse but it would be a mistake to think it was the cause.” She hopes to see a “change in behaviour and in the culture of how we treat front-facing workers.” 

In a Freedom of Information request to the Department for Health and Social Care, Byline Times asked for the number of assaults by members of the public on BTP officers every year since 2016. The response reveals a worrying trend: attacks on BTP officers have increased.  

The number of BTP victims of violent offences has remained higher than 2016 levels (662) over the five-year period. In 2018, there was a 53% increase in assaults on BTP officers compared to 2016.

Goodband wants to see punishments handed down to people who assault BTP officers and other frontline staff. He told Byline Times: “The courts now have greater powers to deal robustly with people who assault emergency workers. They must use those powers.”

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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