The Royal College of Nursing has said its annual conference will be held online only following “serious allegations of sexual harassment”.
The union, which represents some 465,000 health workers, said that after “independent legal advice” the elected members of its council had decided to “move this year’s meeting to a fully virtual event”. The union says the decision was not taken lightly and was needed to “protect” members.
The RCN Congress was due to be held in Liverpool across three days next month.
The union said that “as a matter of urgency” it was “undertaking a full review of all safeguarding policies and procedures as part of our cultural change”. It did not provide details of the allegations, but said it took a “zero tolerance approach” at all times.
Carol Popplestone, chair of the RCN Council, said: “We have acted fast and took a unanimous decision that protects all attendees. We know that many members planning to attend were looking forward to seeing each other in person for the first time in two years. But this decision was made with members’ safety at the top of our minds. That is what we are here to safeguard at all costs.
“I am absolutely determined that Congress will still be its usual fascinating mix of debates, events and speeches. Getting together virtually won’t stand in the way of that.”
Popplestone took over the RCN’s governing body after complaints were made against her predecessor David Dawes.
The RCN said it was taking the complaint “extremely seriously”, adding: “An independent external investigation will now take place and Dave Dawes has announced he will voluntarily step down from his role as chair of RCN Council.”
It was unclear whether the two investigations were linked. The RCN said it could not provide further details about the allegations at this point.
A recent survey by the journal Nursing Times and Unison found sexual harassment was widespread in the nursing profession. The survey of more than 2,000 male and female nurses found that six in 10 reported they have been sexually harassed at work, although only 27% who had been harassed reported it.
Nurses who said they had suffered harassment said the commonest source was from patients – 58% said they been targeted by a patient, 26% by medical colleagues, 24% by nursing colleagues and 19% by patients’ family or friends.
Just 28% of those surveyed felt enough was being done in their workplace to protect them from sexual harassment. Josie Irwin, women’s officer at Unison, said: “Staff working in the NHS must be able to do their jobs without fear of unwanted attention, lewd remarks or being made to feel uncomfortable.”
The union was originally due to hold its congress in May, but, it was postponed after a surge in Covid cases. Its 2020 congress, scheduled to take place in June last year, was cancelled because of the pandemic.