Five vulnerable patients were assaulted by staff at Muckamore Abbey Hospital between 2014 and 2017, BBC News NI can reveal.

The hospital provides care to adults with intellectual disabilities and behavioural and mental health issues.

Since November 2017, 13 members of staff have been suspended after ill-treatment allegations.

It is not known if the current staff suspensions are connected to the patient assaults between 2014 and 2017.

When asked if anyone had been disciplined in relation to the five patient assaults confirmed between 2014 and 2017, a spokesperson for the Belfast Trust said as there was an ongoing investigation it could not comment further.

It is not known whether criminal proceedings resulted from these incidents.

New figures obtained by BBC News NI also show that there were thousands of incidents of violence towards staff by patients reported since 2014.

There have been almost 200 instances of Muckamore staff on sick leave because of stress during the same time period.

In response to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request sent by BBC News NI, the Belfast Trust confirmed that in Muckamore Abbey hospital between 2014 and 2017 there were:

53 incidents of assaults on patients by staff reported - five of these incidents were investigated and substantiated
4,546 incidents of physical abuse, assault or violence by patients on staff reported
193 instances of staff sickness
39 patients who have resided in the hospital for more than one year, with some patients having delayed discharge of periods ranging from two to 10 years

In its FoI response the Belfast Trust said: "All incidents of assaults on patients by staff are reported and fully investigated under the adult safeguarding policy."

'Grave concern'
Government policy states that all patients in long-stay learning disability hospitals should be resettled in community settings.

Several targets set by the Department of Health in Northern Ireland to resettle all patients in Muckamore Abbey Hospital have been missed.

There are 80 patients and 500 members of staff in Muckamore Abbey Hospital.

Janice Smyth, the Northern Ireland director of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said she had serious concerns about the health and wellbeing of patients and staff at Muckamore Abbey Hospital.

She said that as a nurse it was "absolutely shocking" to think that a staff member who is employed to provide care to protect vulnerable adults "has been investigated and allegations have been substantiated that they actually assaulted a patient".

"I think that is the most horrendous thing that can happen in health care," she told BBC NI's Good Morning Ulster.

Ms Smyth said "one incident of assault on a patient is one too many".

She added: "It is also a matter of grave concern that there have been 4,546 incidents of physical abuse, assault or violence by patients on staff reported during the same period.

"It is therefore unsurprising that staff are absent from work due to stress.

"The 80 patients accommodated in Muckamore Abbey Hospital have complex needs and are amongst the most vulnerable in our society."

The Belfast Trust initiated an adult safeguarding investigation in September 2017 after reports of inappropriate behaviour and the alleged physical abuse of patients by staff in two wards in Muckamore Abbey Hospital.

Four members of staff were suspended in November 2017 after allegations of ill-treatment of patients at the facility.

After those suspensions, the Belfast Trust carried out a review of archived CCTV footage.

A further nine members of staff have been suspended since then.

An expert panel has since been set up to independently review the standard of care in Muckamore Abbey Hospital.

The Belfast Trust apologised unreservedly to patients and families affected by the allegations.