Health warning

THE indignity suffered by those NHS patients who have the misfortune to be treated on mixed-sex hospital wards has continued for far too long. So, too, has the, frankly, sickening political posturing that has accompanied this issue for almost 15 years.

It was Tony Blair, as Opposition leader, who said, with great rhetorical flourish in 1996 that it should not be beyond "the collective wit" of Ministers to abolish mixed-sex wards. It was.

It was also beyond the competence of Mr Blair's successor Gordon Brown. Indeed, Lord Darzi, an eminent surgeon who became a health minister in the last government, admitted two years ago that this policy was "an aspiration that cannot be met".

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Of course, the new commitment made by Andrew Lansley, the coalition's Health Secretary, is welcome. By threatening to fine those NHS trusts that fail to introduce single-sex wards, he is recycling a commitment that was first outlined by Alan Johnson, the Hull MP and then Health Secretary, in January 2009.

Mr Johnson gave hospitals 14 months to adhere to the Government's policy, but the issue was, once again, laid to rest when he was promoted to the Home Office.

That is why Mr Lansley's announcement needs to be accompanied by a health warning. Can he deliver where Mr Johnson, and countless others, failed? And, furthermore, how does he intend to help those hospitals whose outdated buildings offer little scope for flexibility, or an ability to partition wards into two?

No one will dispute Mr Lansley's sentiment. Far from it. Equally, however, patients would prefer some honesty from Ministers about the practical difficulties that will remain, particularly on A&E wards, rather than more broken promises that only serve to undermine their confidence in the NHS and the Government.