Wigan's hospital refurbishment led to breaches of mixed-sex ward rules

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Wigan health chiefs are risking fines by breaking rules banning mixed-sex wards, as they struggle to cope with unprecedented numbers of patients

A leading health think tank says rising demand is leaving staff with no choice but to break the rules – which can carry a financial penalty.

Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS Foundation Trust (WWL) recorded nine breaches of mixed-sex accommodation rules during 2019, according to the latest NHS statistics.

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That was an increase on the seven instances recorded in the previous 12-month period.

Reburbishment of ICU meant staff had no choice but to mix male and female patientsReburbishment of ICU meant staff had no choice but to mix male and female patients
Reburbishment of ICU meant staff had no choice but to mix male and female patients | jpimedia

NHS trusts are supposed to be fined £250 per patient each time they break the rules, meaning WWL faced fines of £2,250 over the course of the year.

However, NHS England said enforcement of the fines is left to individual Clinical Commissioning Groups, which plan and buy healthcare from trusts, who could decide to waive them.

Claire Alexander, WWL Director of Governance, said: “During 2019, the Trust recorded nine breaches of mixed-sex rules.

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“The main reason behind these breaches has been due to ongoing refurbishment of equipment on the intensive care unit.

“As these upgrades were being made, some patients had to be moved to our critical care unit which is where the breaches took place. Throughout this time, patient dignity and care was maintained to the utmost standard.”

December saw the number of breaches recorded across England hit the highest level for the same month since 2010, with more than 2,000 incidents recorded – an increase of 20 per cent in one year.

Nigel Edwards, chief executive of health think tank the Nuffield Trust, said increasingly busy hospitals were struggling to stick to the rules.

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He said: “These rises in mixed sex accommodation breaches, which will be upsetting for patients, haven’t happened because the NHS has just stopped trying. Rather, we’re now seeing a very high proportion of beds full nearly all the time, leaving staff no choice sometimes but to put people onto a ward for the wrong sex or no ward at all.”

The ban applies to sleeping accommodation, which includes any area where patients are admitted on beds or trolleys even if they do not stay overnight.

It does not include instances where mixed accommodation is considered justified, such as in intensive care.

Lucy Watson, chair of the Patients’ Association charity, said: “We are very concerned that so many people are still being placed in inappropriate hospital accommodation, many years after mixed-sex wards were supposedly abolished,” she said.

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“Patients deserve to be treated with dignity, and at a time when many will be feeling frail or vulnerable, it is vital that they feel some sense of privacy and safety.

“Patients shouldn’t find themselves in a bed next to a member of the opposite sex, particularly if they need to use a bedpan, or have intimate care.”

An NHS England spokesman said: “The vast majority of trusts have completely eliminated breaches, and at just 0.1% of hospital stays they remain extremely rare in the context of the rising number of people who are admitted to hospital every month.

“But the ambition remains to keep the number of times that this happens to an absolute minimum, and the Government’s commitment to increase the number of nurses by 50,000 and invest in new and expanded beds and facilities will be crucial in achieving this over the coming years.”