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Secret NHS report reveals failure to protect trainee paramedics from sexual harassment and racism

NHS England first triggered the review following ‘extreme challenges’ faced by ambulance services in 2021 and 2022 (Getty)
NHS England first triggered the review following ‘extreme challenges’ faced by ambulance services in 2021 and 2022 (Getty)

A secret report has warned that the NHS is failing to protect trainee paramedics from widespread sexual harassment and racism at work, The Independent can reveal.

A confidential NHS England report, uncovered by this publication, has found that “extremely alarming” conduct and undermining behaviour are rife in ambulance trusts across the country, with trainees subjected to derogatory comments about their age, ethnicity and appearance in front of patients.

There is a “worrying acceptance” that this is “part of the job”, with students hesitant to raise complaints about sexual behaviour by male colleagues in case it gives them a reputation as “annoying snowflakes”, the report says.

The revelations come after a recent NHS staff survey revealed that thousands of ambulance staff had reported unwanted sexual behaviour from colleagues and patients last year.

One healthcare leader described the findings as “harrowing”, warning that much more needs to be done to protect junior staff.

Examples of racist and sexist behaviour between colleagues, uncovered by The Independent, include:

  • One male paramedic touching a student inappropriately on multiple occasions – including her groin and breast – and making sexually inappropriate comments such as: “That has got me going”

  • Incidents reported at one trust that included Blackface at a work fancy-dress party, making monkey sounds, and even laughing at colleagues unable to eat during Ramadan

  • A male paramedic asking a student to go to a hotel room and saying: “Women don’t have gag reflexes”

  • One racism complaint not being taken forward because the staff member was deemed to be simply “set in their ways”

  • A student who complained about bullying and a “toxic environment” being moved to another station, while the mentor was given a new student straight away

  • One professor telling a trainee: “We’re not going to change the culture ... so we try to protect our students from the worst”

The national report, which is understood to have gone through several edited versions and is marked commercially sensitive, was not due to be released until The Independent obtained the document through a freedom of information request.

The NHS is failing to protect trainee paramedics from sexual harassment and racism, a report has revealed (PA Wire)
The NHS is failing to protect trainee paramedics from sexual harassment and racism, a report has revealed (PA Wire)

It found an “undercurrent” of bullying in some areas, with examples of students leaving their jobs as a result of inappropriate behaviour.

Trainees reported feeling undervalued and unwanted while on the job, with one apparently told: “Your concerns don’t matter – we have to meet patient demands.”

Ambulance handover delays have also led to student paramedics having less experience and training on the job, prompting fears that newly qualified paramedics do not have sufficient levels of experience in life-critical situations.

Saffron Cordery, the deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “Trust leaders have zero tolerance of sexual harassment and racism in the NHS. But these harrowing findings make clear that more can and must be done to ensure the wellbeing and safety of staff.”

She said important strides have been made, but added: “It’s clear much more needs to be done to meaningfully address the roots of sexual harassment and racism.”

NHS England first triggered the review following “extreme challenges” faced by ambulance services in 2021 and 2022.

An independent review into ambulance services in February warned the NHS that “serious allegations of sexual assault, harassment or inappropriate behaviours” had been made within ambulance services across the country, which employ nearly 17,000 paramedics.

Last year, The Independent reported a warning from a Care Quality Commission official that ambulance services were failing to root out abusers. One female paramedic revealed she had been left with PTSD after a colleague groped her chest while another “dry humped” her and locked her in an ambulance.

Student paramedic working within the South East Coast Ambulance reported feeling “shocked and violated” (Gareth Fuller/PA Wire)
Student paramedic working within the South East Coast Ambulance reported feeling “shocked and violated” (Gareth Fuller/PA Wire)

The Independent has since discovered multiple “fitness to practice” cases, published by regulator the Health and Care Professions Council, that relate to paramedics being sanctioned for sexual misconduct against students.

In one case, a student paramedic working within the South East Coast Ambulance reported feeling “shocked and violated” after her male colleague Jonathan Moyes touched her inappropriately on multiple occasions.

Mr Moyes was suspended in 2022 before being struck off in 2023 following allegations made by another colleague of sexually inappropriate behaviour, including telling her: “I am going to punish you for your attitude by putting you over my knee and spanking you.”

In another case in 2021, Devlyn Johnson was struck off for asking a student if they would like to stay in his hotel room. He was also found to have said: “It is my decision about who stays and who goes,” and that “women don’t have gag reflexes”.

Ambulance students take up to four years to qualify and must carry out a set number of hours on the job, which are signed off by student mentors.

Carol King, a former paramedic who quit after blowing the whistle on matters involving sexism, bullying and harassment, founded a Facebook group which now has more than 2,000 members, including trainee paramedics.

She warned that the issue with students was the “tip of the iceberg”, adding: “They feel vulnerable. They have a lot riding on that very prestigious job. But it’s difficult to know [the scale] because everything is so undercover.”

Will Broughton, a professor of paramedicine at Buckinghamshire New University, told The Independent: “The student experience in parts of the UK isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse.”

Health secretary Victoria Atkins. The Department of Health and Social Care says: ‘Discrimination, sexual harassment or misconduct of any kind is unacceptable’ (AFP/Getty)
Health secretary Victoria Atkins. The Department of Health and Social Care says: ‘Discrimination, sexual harassment or misconduct of any kind is unacceptable’ (AFP/Getty)

Professor Broughton added: “The environment can create or enhance vulnerabilities because there’s a power dynamic – [the students] are looking for the paramedic mentors to give them feedback and sign off their capabilities, so students think, ‘I won’t raise concerns about person X because I need them to fill in my portfolio’.”

Unite said it would be speaking to its members in the ambulance services to deal with issues the report has highlighted.

General secretary Sharon Graham said: “Everyone has a right to safe working conditions but we can see from these findings that too many female paramedics cannot conduct their job without the fear of sexual harassment or Bame members suffering from racist abuse. It’s a disgrace.”

Anna Parry, managing director of the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives (AACE), said rooting out “inappropriate and outdated elements of toxic workplace” is one of the ambulance service’s top priorities to ensure staff are able to do their job “free of harassment of any kind”.

She added: ”While ambulance trusts are making progress, there is still much more to do.”

Tracy Nicholls, chief executive of the College of Paramedics, said the college has been aware for some time that student members have experienced these behaviours. She said: “Whilst we have not seen the report, we urge action to be taken to address the behaviours experienced by our students to promote a healthier learning environment, both in their universities and in the workplace.”

It comes days after NHS ombudsman Rob Behrens claimed hospitals are cynically burying evidence about poor care in a “cover-up culture” that leads to avoidable deaths, with health leaders and hospital boards not doing enough to end the practice.

An NHS spokesperson said: “Sexual harassment, misconduct and assault is completely unacceptable and will not be tolerated in the NHS which is why we are rolling out better reporting mechanisms, training and support as part of the NHS’s new Sexual Safety Charter.

“NHS England is committed to supporting ambulance trusts to ensure workplaces are safe and has advised all trusts to appoint a domestic abuse and sexual violence lead to support patients and staff to report incidents and access support, with more than 300 now in place.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Discrimination, sexual harassment or misconduct of any kind is unacceptable, and NHS organisations have a responsibility to protect both staff and patients.

They said the NHS has launched its “equality, diversity and inclusion improvement plan to tackle racism, prejudice and discrimination and has set out its sexual safety charter”.

This article was updated to reflect that Johnathan Moyes worked at South East Coast Ambulance Service.