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Why Norfolk police are having to keep mental health patients in cells for up to 68 hours

PUBLISHED: 08:03 15 December 2017 | UPDATED: 08:03 15 December 2017

People with mental health problems are being kept in police cells and officers are having to wait hours for assessments and transfers. Picture: Newscast Online

People with mental health problems are being kept in police cells and officers are having to wait hours for assessments and transfers. Picture: Newscast Online

Newscast Online

People with mental health problems are being detained unlawfully in Norfolk police stations because of a lack of hospital beds.

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb obtained the figures from Norfolk Police. Picture: ANTONY KELLY North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb obtained the figures from Norfolk Police. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

And police officers are spending up to 17 hours looking after mental health patients, waiting to find them a bed and even taking them to hospital, because of mental health staff and bed shortages.

The scale of how police officers are acting as a back up NHS for people with mental health problems has been revealed in a Freedom of Information request by North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb to the police.

It shows that two officers at a time are being tied up for up to 17 hours with people detained under the Mental Health Act at hospitals while they wait for mental health assessments to be done.

The assessment delays are caused by a lack of doctors or mental health staff and are the responsibility of Norfolk County Council.

Dr Bohdan Solomka, medical director at the Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (NSFT). Photo courtesy of NSFT. Dr Bohdan Solomka, medical director at the Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (NSFT). Photo courtesy of NSFT.

Mr Lamb, who raised the issue in Parliament on Thursday, said it showed there was an “endemic” shortage of staff, meaning the police were left to pick up the pieces.

A Norfolk Police spokesman said they were “concerned” by the delays to mental health assessments.

“It should not fall to the Constabulary to put plans in place to cover the gaps or shortfalls of other agencies,” they said.

The County Council said it worked closely with the police to prioritise the assessments and was investing £400,000 a year to reduce delays.

A shortage of mental health beds in the region also means that those with mental health problems, who have been arrested, are being held unlawfully in police cells for up to 70 hours while waiting for a free bed.

A person can only be held by police for 24 hours after being arrested, but the police response to Mr Lamb’s request showed several times this year mental health patients were held in police cells for more than 40 hours.

Even when a mental health bed had been found, delays were caused by problems finding an ambulance to take them to a secure bed.

A police spokesman said caring for these people in custody was “not appropriate”.

The number of mental health beds at the Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust (NSFT) has been cut by around a quarter since 2012.

NSFT medical director Bohdan Solomka said: “Through our close partnership working with the police, we are doing a lot to avoid the need for these detentions. “In Norfolk alone we estimate that we have avoided over 150 detentions under the mental health act, in the past year.”

A spokesman for the Campaign to Save Mental Health Services, said the reports showed the “continuing collapse of mental health services in Norfolk”.

“The police have neither the time nor the training to act as an alternative to inadequate local mental health services and police cells are not the place for people who are unwell and should be receiving treatment.”

•The patients held unlawfully

Suspects arrested by police and then detained under the Mental Health Act are meant to be held in a specialist mental health unit.

But a shortage of beds means they are being kept in police cells instead, far longer than the legal 24 hours.

•In January a man was held in a police cell in King’s Lynn for two days, nearly 50 hours. There was not a free bed anywhere in the country.

•Two days later, a man spent 68 hours in police custody in Aylsham. A bed was finally found but a secure ambulance could not be booked.

•In May in Aylsham again a man was held for 57 hours in a police cell as a bed and ambulance could not be found.

•A 71-year-old woman, who threatened her neighbour with a pitchfork, was held at King’s Lynn police station for 28 hours in May waiting for a bed.

•In November a man was arrested and kept in custody in Wymondham for 48 hours while a bed was found.

•Police waits with patients

•On November 20 two police officers waited for 14 hours with a woman detained under the Mental Health Act at the Fermoy Unit in King’s Lynn.

That night there was just one Approved Mental Health Professional (AMHP), which are provided by Norfolk County Council, on duty in the county.

The assessment took place at 2pm the next day.

•On September 20 two officers waited with another patient in the Fermoy suite for around 15 hours as no doctor could be found.

•On April 13 a woman was detained at 8.40pm and taken to the Fermoy Unit.

Staff told officers they could not find any doctors willing to come to King’s Lynn to do the assessment.

It was passed to the AMHP for the next day but they only had one person on duty so the assessment did not take place until 2pm the next day.

It meant two officers had to wait 17 hours.

The examples were given by Norfolk Police to Mr Lamb.

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