Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, who has made clear his opposition to mixed-sex wards since his appointment, launched plans designed to protect the privacy and dignity of patients two years after his predecessor, Virginia Bottomley, promised prompt action.
Mr Dorrell said: "I do not find it acceptable for men and women to have to be accommodated together in old-style, unadapted wards. I want to see good physical separation of beds for men and women, with separate toilet and washing facilities."
One of Mr Dorrell's priorities is to end mixed-sex wards in mental hospitals, which have been blamed for exposing vulnerable women patients to the risk of abuse by disturbed men.
Mr Dorrell outlined plans, supported by nurses' leaders, which mean that hospitals must ensure they re-organise their accommodation by the end of 1998, so that all patients on a particular ward are of the same sex. One estimate is that it will cost around pounds 1m for each health authority to comply with the new regulations in the country's 450 hospitals. A 1995 survey of mixed-sex wards carried out for the NHS Executive in two health regions, North West and West Midlands, found that 44 per cent of hospitals had some wards which did not provide single-sex accommodation.
Big wards may be divided into single-sex bays with separate bathroom facilities, while old-fashioned Nightingale wards could be divided down the middle by partitions under the new plans. Mr Dorrell has made it clear that makeshift partitions or curtains will not be acceptable. A solid wall will be the only option. Some hospitals may have to invest in new wings.
Alan Langlands, the NHS chief executive, has sent a letter asking all authorities to report through regional offices by the end of February. They must submit timetables showing by what date hospitals in their areas will:
t Have good organisational arrangements in place to separate men and women while they are in hospital;
t Meet the Patient's Charter standard for segregated washing and toilet facilities in full;
t Provide safe facilities for mentally ill people which protect their privacy and dignity.
The letter also includes guidance on the ways in which this can be done.
There will have to be exceptions in emergency cases and children's wards, but the letter points out that in all cases staff ought to be sensitive to patients' needs for privacy.