The government's 'NHS zero tolerance zone' campaign to counter violence against NHS staff has been found to be using fake incidents in its publicity material.

Posters produced for the campaign apparently show implements used as weapons against staff in specific attacks.

One shows a syringe with a label attached saying: 'Used in an attack on a nurse, surgical ward, Leicester, May 30 1999.'

But none of Leicester's hospitals have a record of such an attack on the date given.

Another poster shows a broken bottle and claims it was used to attack a nurse in the accident and emergency ward of a Plymouth hospital on 5 February 1999. Again, no local hospital has a record of such an attack.

Leicester hospitals and Trent regional office declined to comment.

But a South West regional office spokesperson admitted the incident shown was 'an example'.

A zero tolerance pack, with posters, postcards and a managers' guide to stopping violence against NHS staff, was issued this week.

A circular says trusts and HAs should ensure campaign posters are 'prominently displayed' in waiting and staff rooms and establish 'robust' and 'uncomplicated' procedures to deal with violence.

Health unions, which have campaigned for a lead from government against violence in the NHS, were dismayed by the disclosures.

Sheelagh Brewer, Royal College of Nursing senior employment relations officer, said: 'It's unfortunate this has been allowed to happen, but it must not detract from the very real issue of violence.'

A Unison spokesperson said: 'We support this campaign, on which we have been working alongside the government. It would be a pity if this was allowed to undermine it.'

A Department of Health spokesperson said he did not know whether the attacks depicted had taken place or not.

'Attacks like the ones featured do happen on a regular basis, and I don't see why it is the case that we have to use real examples.

'Specific examples could well upset the people who had been the subject of an attack, and they would not perhaps take kindly to being reminded of the incident in a large poster, ' he said.

'I can see that some people may think it misleading to give the day, month, year and location of an attack as fact when it may not have happened. I think it is justifiable in the light of the campaign.'

Campaign to Stop Violence Against Staff Working in the NHS: NHS zero tolerance zone. www.doh.gov.uk/coinh.htm