MORE patients were placed on mixed-sex wards at the Royal Berkshire 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 Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust recorded 1,458 breaches of mixed-sex accommodation rules during 2019, NHS figures show.

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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 £364,500 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.

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.

Royal Berkshire NHS Trust recorded 305 breaches during the month, an increase from 105 the previous year.

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.

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"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."

A spokesperson for the Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust said: “We have well established guidelines to make sure all our patients, parents and carers are treated with dignity and respect and their privacy is preserved whilst they are using services at the RBH.

"The mixed sex breaches recorded here have been in our Acute Medical Unit and are caused by high attendance levels in our Emergency Department when we have to move patients quickly to prevent overcrowding.

"There have not been any mixed sex ward breaches anywhere else in the hospital.

They continued: “As the Nuffield Trust acknowledges, hospitals are ‘increasingly busy’ and we’re facing the same pressures felt at hospitals across the country.

"These have been exacerbated recently with the winter flu pressures and an outbreak of the extremely contagious norovirus (diarrhoea and sickness).

"Patients with both flu and norovirus need to be isolated to prevent further spread of the illnesses and, given the very confined conditions of our hospital estate, this has place further challenges on us.

"However, we are proud of the fact that we have managed these circumstances without mixed sex ward breaches."