The number of NHS patients forced to undergo hospital treatment on mixed wards has trebled since the pandemic, new figures show.
In the six months to March – the most recent period for which there is official data – the rule preventing patients of different sexes from being treated on the same wards has been broken more than 25,000 times.
Patients were placed on mixed-sex wards, which have been criticised by campaigners as an “affront to patients’ dignity”, thousands of times in March alone.
The new figures came after the NHS quietly dropped financial penalties from care contracts for placing patients in mixed-sex wards, which the Government banned in 2010.
NHS trusts faced a £250 fine for every breach, barring certain exceptions.
However, the rule was suspended in April 2020 during the Covid pandemic as hospitals faced increased bed occupancy pressures, and has never been reinstated.
NHS England data, analysed by the PA news agency’s Radar service, show the rule was broken 4,475 times in March – the second-highest single month since 2011-12 and more than triple the 1,400 instances recorded in March 2019.
Experts said it is “not surprising” that the number of breaches has continued to increase, as hospitals remain under huge pressure.
Nigel Edwards, the chief executive of the Nuffield Trust, told The Telegraph: “These situations will be distressing for patients, but staff are left with little choice.
“Given the huge pressure on the system, these breaches were unfortunately already common across NHS trusts before the pandemic and are a symptom of hospitals running constantly close to capacity.
“The health and care system remains under serious pressure, with long waits to be discharged from hospital, admission to a hospital bed and in emergency care too.”
He added: “These challenges make co-ordinating wards to prevent mixed-sex breaches more difficult. It is not surprising that we have seen these breaches increase further as hospitals are still very full and under huge amounts of pressure to cut long waits.
“If the UK had followed practice in other countries and built more hospitals with single rooms instead of building on the cheap, this problem would not be so prevalent.”
NHS organisations regularly submit data on the number of occurrences of “unjustified mixing” in relation to their sleeping accommodation.
Recording of the breaches was suspended from March 2020 to September 2021 because of the pandemic.
When NHS trusts were asked to go back to logging breaches in October 2021, there were 2,300 occurrences, while every month since this past December has topped 4,000, including a record 4,938 in January.
Rachel Power, the chief executive of the Patients Association, said: “Mixed-sex wards are an affront to patients’ dignity. No patient wants to receive intimate, personal care on a mixed-sex ward, and it’s the sort of stress that doesn’t promote recovery.”
Data on finished episodes show that about 2.6 rule breaches occurred per 1,000 treatments in March, almost treble the 0.9 per 1,000 in March 2019.
Every month since October has had a breach rate north of two. February 2020 is the only month to top that figure since March 2011.
A spokesman from the Department of Health and Social Care said: “We have been clear patients should not have to share sleeping accommodation with others of the opposite sex and should have access to segregated bathroom and toilet facilities, and we expect NHS trusts to comply with these measures.”
An NHS spokesman said: “Offering single-sex accommodation is a requirement under the NHS Standard Contract. Trusts across the country are taking action to reduce or eliminate unjustified breaches, which remain rare.”
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