The Government says it is no longer committed to its long-term promise to scrap mixed-sex hospital wards.
The retreat was sounded by the Health minister, Lord Darzi of Denham, who said it was not practical to provide separate male and female wards across the National Health Service.
His comments – more than 10 years after Labour promised in its election manifesto to "work towards the elimination of mixed-sex wards" – provoked fury among patients' groups. They have called for an end to men and women sharing facilities to protect their privacy and dignity. They also argue that some women have been assaulted by male patients in mixed wards.
Among those who have campaigned on the subject is The Independent's Janet Street-Porter. She has told of how her sister, Patricia Balsom, was admitted to a mixed ward two years ago as she was dying of lung cancer.
In the run-up to the 1997 election, Tony Blair highlighted the issue of mixed-sex wards and challenged Tory ministers: "Is it beyond the collective wit of the Government to deal with that problem?"
In power, however, Labour has struggled to meet in full the commitment, which was repeated in its 2001 manifesto, but dropped in 2005. Lord Darzi told peers yesterday that guidance to hospitals was to provide "single sex accommodation, not wards". He said: "This may mean single rooms or single-sex bays within a mixed ward as well as single-sex wards. The only way we are going to have single-sex wards in the NHS is to build the whole of the NHS into single rooms. That is an aspiration that cannot be met."
But Katherine Murphy, a spokeswoman for the Patients Association, accused the Government of a U-turn. She said: "The problem is still there for patients of all ages who ask for nothing more than a safe NHS where 'dignity and respect is at the heart' – to quote Lord Darzi himself. Patients have no guarantee 10 years on that anyone will do anything to achieve this. This is throwing in the towel."
Kate Jopling, of Help the Aged, said: "Sharing mixed sex wards remains an ongoing concern for many older people who may find the experience distressing and an inappropriate infringement of their privacy, and therefore dignity.
Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat health spokesman, said: "The Government has flip-flopped on this manifesto commitment for over 10 years. We now have a clinician blowing the gaff on a political commitment which appears to have no substance."
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