More patients were placed on mixed-sex wards at the Princess Alexandra Hospital Trust last year – despite an NHS-wide ban.

A leading health think tank says rising demand is leaving staff with no choice but to break the rules – risking hefty fines when they do so.

The Harlow-based hospital recorded 153 breaches of mixed-sex accommodation rules during 2019, NHS figures show.

But the trust that runs the hospital disputes this figure, saying it had 119 breaches from April 1, 2019 until December 31, 2019.

It says all breaches occurred in the intensive care unit/high dependency unit.

Trusts are supposed to be fined £250 per patient per breach, with NHS England guidance stating they should have a "zero-tolerance" approach.

This would mean the trust faced fines of £38,250 over the course of the year.

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

Epping Forest Guardian:

The Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow

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 – an increase of 20 per cent in one year.

Breaches at Princess Alexandra Hospital NHS Trust were at a record high, with six during the month.

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

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.

"Unfortunately, there tends to be even less space available in winter, so pressure may still get worse – in previous years, breaches have peaked in January or February.”

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 Patient's Association charity, said failing to follow the rules could cause additional anxiety for people already worried about being in hospital.

“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.

"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 per cent 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.”

Stephanie Lawton, chief operating officer at The Princess Alexandra Hospital NHS Trust, said: “Protecting the privacy and dignity of our patients is our absolute priority at all times.

“An important aspect of this is ensuring that patients staying at our hospital are given single sex accommodation. It is only in exceptional circumstances that a patient would stay in mixed sex accommodation. The time a patient spends in mixed sex accommodation will depend on how well they are to move to an appropriate ward.

“We have had 119 occasions from 1 April 2019 to 31 December 2019 where this has occurred, all of which have been in our Intensive Care Unit/High Dependency Unit. This is due to the restricted space within the unit, which means that it is difficult to maintain areas as single sex only at times. The breaches also occurred during a six-month refurbishment programme, when other accommodation options were more limited. In context, in December we had 2,728 inpatients, with two breaches during this time.

“We remain committed to continuing to ensure that our patients are cared for in single sex accommodation on every occasion possible.”