Page last updated at 03:45 GMT, Friday, 23 January 2009

Frustration over mixed-sex wards

Elderly patient being treated
The Tories have pledged to invest in single-sex rooms

A health service memo, seen by the BBC, says the government is "rattled" over the "failure" to eradicate mixed-sex wards in English hospitals.

According to the document, leaked to the Tories, Health Secretary Alan Johnson spoke of his frustration that Labour's pledge had not been met.

Ministers are now set to launch a fresh campaign to "all-but-eliminate" mixed-sex accommodation.

A Conservative spokesman called the lack of progress "a scandal".

The memo - written by a senior NHS manager - summarises a meeting which took place earlier this month.

Single sex accommodation is the only way to ensure patient dignity, privacy and safety
Katherine Murphy, Patients Association

It conveys deep frustration from the health secretary over a failure to deliver on repeated Labour manifesto promises to scrap mixed-sex accommodation.

Mr Johnson is quoted as saying "sane and rational arguments about why it can't be done no longer cut it with me, it's going to happen".

The memo also says that a central capital fund will be established for strategic health authorities to get rid of mixed-sex accommodation alongside a new contractual obligation for hospitals to tackle the problem.

Ongoing problem

At the beginning of January, a freedom of information request from the Conservatives found that 15% of hospital trusts still used at least one open-plan mixed-sex ward.

Others had curtains dividing the sexes, falling short of advice that there should be solid full-height partitions.

Labour pledged to end mixed-sex accommodation in both its 1997 and 2001 manifestos.

By 2006 ministers were claiming this had been achieved in 99% of cases, but patient surveys have since shown this not to be the case.

Under the government's definition of mixed-sex accommodation, patients should be kept in bays divided at the very least by fixed full-height partitions.

Patients should also not be expected to walk past others of the opposite sex to go to washing or toilet facilities.

Intensive care and A&E departments are not included for practical reasons.

Shadow health secretary, Andrew Lansley, said: "This is a stark admission of failure from Labour.

"Frankly it is a scandal that they have done nothing about mixed-sex wards except make repeated empty promises.

"What's worse is that they are only taking action now because Conservatives have exposed their abysmal record and set out real plans for change, with single rooms in hospital for all patients who need them."


A government source told the BBC that the NHS had not dealt with mixed-sex accommodation as swiftly as it should have but progress had been made.

And a new plan to prioritise and tackle the problem would be announced shortly

It will include a centrally-held fund to enable a six-month push to eliminate mixed-sex accommodation as far as possible.

Nigel Edwards, director of policy at the NHS Confederation, said he was sceptical about how the changes required could be funded.

"Capital funding of this kind would have to be paid back.

"There could also be staffing implications for this type of programme."

Katherine Murphy, director of the Patients Association said she was glad Alan Johnson finally accepts the government has failed time after time to deliver on its promises on mixed sex accommodation.

"Single-sex accommodation is the only way to ensure patient dignity, privacy and safety.

"Successive ministers have made promises for the past 11 years - patients finally deserve action not words."

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