Nineteen years ago this month, Mandy Cassidy received the call every parent dreads. Her son, Greg, had been stabbed during an argument on a night out and was in hospital. Mandy and her husband, Hugh, drove for six hours across the country to be with him.
By the time they arrived at the hospital, the 18-year-old had passed away.
“I felt numb,” says Mandy, 57. “I didn't feel like it was real. I kept thinking: ‘I’ll wake up in a minute and it will be a big, nasty, horrible dream.’ It still doesn’t seem real, even now.”
Mandy, a dispatcher for the London Ambulance Service (LAS), features in the latest series of BBC One’s Ambulance, in which she decries how prolific knife crime is.
“It doesn’t seem to matter what time of day or night it is any more,” she says in the documentary. “It’s all the time. Some of the crews pick up people who say: ‘I’ve been stabbed 10 times in the past couple of months.’ What’s that all about? I just want to shout at them and say: ‘What on earth do you think you’re playing at? You’re wasting your life.”
When we meet at the LAS headquarters by Waterloo, Mandy is forthright, her bracelets jangling as she tells me how worried she is for the city’s children – particularly now lockdown has eased.
“Parents are having to bury their children,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how old your child is, 10 or 30; they’re still someone’s baby. It’s the wrong way around.”
When Mandy joined the service, they would get called to two or three stabbings a week. “Now, it’s constant,” she says. The weekend before we meet, there were 10 calls listed as potential stabbings in one night. “That’s just one night – and it’s quite common,” she adds.
Youth violence dropped off during lockdown – from a record high of 46,000 incidents recorded by police in the year to March in England and Wales, stab wounds among the under-25s fell by 69 per cent after March 17.
“We’re back to the same levels,” says Mandy. “The stabbings are back again without a doubt. It’s sad we could go through something like Covid, have [no stabbings] to go back to normal again. Or what we’re calling normal.”
Greg was a “lovable rogue”, who Mandy is careful not to misremember. He wasn’t a saint, nor was he in a gang. Rather, he was a boy who struggled with ADHD before it was widely understood. And who was robbed of the chance to become an adult.
“He was no angel,” says Mandy. “I’m the first one to admit he was a little sod, but he didn’t deserve to die.”
Greg loved football and could light up any room – “You were instantly drawn to him when he walked in,” she says. After leaving school at 16, he had started an apprenticeship as a chef.
“I don’t know where he’d be now,” she says. “I hope he’d have a good job. He didn’t get a chance to grow up and make something of himself – he died just after his 18th birthday. He’s been dead longer than he was alive.”
Greg died in the same month as 9/11, leaving Mandy, who worked for British Airways, bereaved and unemployed. A year later, she walked through the doors of LAS.
“I wanted to do something for me,” she says. “My world was turned upside down. It appealed to me to do something to help people. It’s the hardest job in the service, taking 999 calls. It’s frustrating – you get sworn at.”
On the ground, assaults against London ambulance staff have been increasing. Since April 1, there have been 260 physical assaults against ambulance workers, including four with an edged weapon and seven with a blunt one. There was a drop-off at the start of lockdown, with 36 incidents in April and 59 in August. In the same period, there were 380 non-physical attacks, including spitting and urinating.
The Government plans to double the minimum jail term to two years for people who assault emergency services staff following a spate of attacks, including the killing of PC Andrew Harper.
“These people need to be prosecuted,” says Mandy. “They can’t keep getting away with assaulting people that have come to help them. It’s not on.”
She adds that harsher sentences for carrying a knife could also curtail youth violence. The person who killed Greg was briefly released from prison but has since returned.
“It was horrible to think that he was out, that he’s still got his life,” says Mandy.
Taking 999 calls, Mandy has grown used to hearing about teenagers who have been stabbed.
“If a call comes in for a young person, 18 or 19 years old, I think about how their parents could have to go through what I did,” she says. “They would have to bury their child.”
The number of calls to shootings is still relatively low, given the difficulty of procuring a gun in the UK. But for Mandy the visceral action of stabbing someone is worse than a gunshot.
“I often wonder what they must be thinking when they’re putting a knife in somebody,” she says. “You’ve got to be in front of them to do it, to look at them. What goes through their head?”
Finding it difficult to watch levels of knife crime grow in the capital, Mandy started volunteering with LAS’s public education team and now spends around 30 days a year in schools talking to children about the dangers.
“You could take to your bed and not come out from underneath the duvet, but then you become a victim as well,” she says. “I wasn’t going to become a victim.”
Speaking in schools where children have been excluded for carrying knives, combs, skewers and bicycle spokes, she tells pupils how Greg died and explains that if they get involved in knife crime they might lose their future, too.
“There’s so little regard for people’s lives,” says Mandy. “This is not a dress rehearsal; we only get one shot at it. We just need to get through to these young people before they get involved in anything. If it stops one kid from dying and getting involved then we’ve had success.”
But the message “isn’t all doom and gloom,” she continues. The main goal is to reach children before they have had a chance to be influenced by their peers, when they are impressionable Year Sevens with a new sense of freedom, and teach them that they have choices and opportunity.
“You’re the future of this country,” she tells them. “I’ve had tears. I’ve had hugs and claps from teachers and children. It’s so good for the kids and it makes a difference.”
As Covid-19 cases rise again, Mandy hopes there will be a respite from the violence. Fewer stabbings helped the service cope with the sharp rise in call-outs for cardiac arrests due to coronavirus – in March, they were receiving 11,000 calls a day compared with the normal 6,000.
“The amount of PPE they have to wear when going to a potential cardiac arrest – which could be caused by violence – puts crews under a tremendous strain,” says Mandy.
Greg’s death has cast a long shadow over Mandy and her family. Her daughter, Jenny, 30, and son, Rhys, 36, were devastated by the loss of their brother and have since lived under their mother’s extra-watchful eye.
Mandy worries intensely about her grandchildren, aged five and 11. When Jenny took her son to look at secondary schools in February, he said to her: “Mum, I don’t want to go to a school where people get stabbed outside.”
“He’s a young boy; he shouldn’t be thinking like that,” says Mandy. “He should be wondering if they have got football and swimming, not ‘I’m going to get stabbed.’”
Mandy still catches herself remembering good times she had with Greg, a holiday they went on or something they did together, before thinking he’ll never be able to do that again.
“We’ll never get that time back,” she says. “He never met my grandchildren. He would have loved them.”
Ambulance airs on BBC One on September 16 at 9pm