NHS leaves thousands of patients at risk of assault after repeatedly breaking mixed-sex ward rules

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

Published Apr 29, 2024 at 01:30 PM

Reading time: 2 minutes

The utilisation of mixed-sex wards has surged dramatically, nearing its highest level in the past decade, as indicated by official statistics from NHS England. In February 2024 alone, breaches of the government’s strict regulations against mixed-sex accommodations were reported nearly 5,000 times, prompting concerns from NHS leaders who warn against care providers normalising practices that were once considered unthinkable.

As the crisis in NHS psychiatric care in England deepens, shadow health secretary Wes Streeting is urging victims to report sexual abuse and rape allegations in mental health wards to the police. This call comes after a joint investigation by Sky News and The Independent uncovered over 20,000 complaints of sexual abuse, harassment, and assault involving patients and staff in more than 30 NHS mental health trusts in England since 2019.

Following the testimony of former patient Alexis Quinn in Sky News’ podcast Patient 11, floods of sexual assault and rape allegations from patients nationwide came to the surface.

Responding to these concerns, Health Secretary Victoria Atkins expressed dismay, stating: “These are horrific allegations. This type of incident should not, and must not, occur in our care. Very vulnerable individuals rely on mental health inpatient facilities for necessary care, support, and treatment.”

However, the issue of mixed-sex wards within the NHS has been a longstanding concern and has featured prominently in political promises and pledges for over a decade. Back in 1997, the Labour Party committed to abolishing mixed-sex wards, highlighting the importance of providing patients with privacy, dignity, and appropriate accommodations during their hospital stays. However, as evident in The Independent’s reporting, these breaches have escalated, reaching 4,811 reported instances, a notable increase from the 3,789 breaches reported in November 2023.

Lynn Woolsey of the Royal College of Nursing emphasised the urgent need for respect, privacy, and dignity in patient care, sentiments echoed by Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Daisy Cooper, who lambasts the government’s failure to uphold its commitments.

The investigation also disclosed fresh findings indicating that there were 1,374 reports of rape and sexual assault within psychiatric hospitals over the past two years. Shockingly, only 26 of these reports led to a charge.

These statistics, sourced from 41 police forces and acquired under the Freedom of Information Act, encompass incidents reported across 340 private and NHS hospitals between 2021 and 2023.

Disturbingly, evidence indicates that patients, particularly in mental health wards, are vulnerable to sexual assaults in these mixed environments. Instances like Quinn’s, who was sexually assaulted in a male-only ward due to bed shortages, underscore the urgent need for reform.

Furthermore, revelations from former patients, such as Rivkah Grant’s experience of being sexually assaulted by a male mental health worker and subsequently placed in a mixed ward, highlight the inadequacy of current safeguards. Despite guidelines explicitly prohibiting mixed wards in mental health units, the investigation revealed widespread non-compliance.

In response to mounting concerns, the Department for Health and Social Care pledged to update guidance on mixed-sex accommodation earlier this year stating: “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. We expect NHS trusts to comply with these measures.”

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