There was an increase in physical assaults on NHS staff last year, with almost 57,000 incidents taking place, latest figures show.

Across England there were 56,718 assaults in 2009-10, a rise of 3.6 per cent from 54,758 the previous year, according to data from the NHS Security Management Service.

The majority of the attacks – 38,959 – were in the mental health and learning disability sector.

Another 13,219 took place in acute hospitals while 1,262 were against ambulance staff and 3,278 occurred within the primary care sector, including GP surgeries.

A total of 1,128 “criminal sanctions” were handed out during the year to people who had committed assaults, including imprisonment, fines and cautions.

Unison head of health Karen Jennings described the figures as an “absolute disgrace”.

She said: “These statistics on violence make sad and shocking reading. Nurses, paramedics and other health workers should not have to go into work fearing that they may be at risk of attack.”

Royal College of Nursing chief executive and general secretary Peter Carter said the figures were a real cause for concern and that financial pressures might make the situation worse.

He said: “Assaults on staff are never justified but the worry is that if pressures increase and people wait longer, the levels of frustration will rise. Nurses have been telling us that they are already doing more with fewer resources and staff.

“We are concerned, for example, that staff shortages could mean a return to the days of long waits in A&E, where tempers could flare on a regular basis.”

He added: “We would urge trusts to do everything in their power to avoid this situation for the benefit of patients as well as staff.”