Steve Barclay has been accused of playing politics at the expense of people’s health after he announced plans which could see trans women prevented from using female-only hospital wards.
The Royal College of Nursing suggested the Health Secretary was courting controversy with his speech to the Conservative Party Conference while LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall branded the approach “unworkable” and said it could make healthcare for trans women “humiliating and dangerous”.
Mr Barclay told those gathered in Manchester on Tuesday that he would look into changing the NHS constitution to address concerns about trans women using wards intended for biologically female patients.
The move – which has been backed by Home Secretary Suella Braverman – would offer the same for male-only wards and trans men, and Mr Barclay said he will open a consultation around the changes.
NHS Providers, which represents health trusts, has warned that any proposed changes to the health service constitution “should have improving inclusivity at the heart of what they do and be subject to wide conversations and consultation”.
Also on Tuesday, Science, Innovation and Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan announced a review into the use of sex and gender questions in scientific research and statistics, including in public bodies, warning the “guiding light” of science is under attack from the “slow creep of wokeism”.
Mr Barclay said the changes he had proposed would ensure that patients’ requests to have intimate care provided by someone of the same sex are respected.
He said he had already undertaken similar work, pointing to an intervention on “unacceptable changes to the NHS website that erased women from conditions such as cervical cancer”, and stopping the NHS from making staff declare their pronouns.
He added: “That is why today I am going further, by announcing that we will change the NHS constitution following a consultation later this year to make sure we respect the privacy, dignity and safety of all patients, recognise the importance of different biological needs and protect the rights of women.”
Outside the conference hall, Mr Barclay added: “We need a common-sense approach to sex and equality issues in the NHS – that is why today I am announcing proposals for clearer rights for patients.
“And I can today confirm that sex-specific language has now been fully restored to online health advice pages about cervical and ovarian cancer and the menopause. It is vital that women’s voices are heard in the NHS and the privacy, dignity and safety of all patients are protected.”
But Royal College of Nursing chief nurse Professor Nicola Ranger suggested Mr Barclay was playing politics and had failed to tackle other issues “head on” in his speech, such as staffing levels.
She said: “The Health Secretary should not play politics and court controversy at the expense of people’s health and good care, including plans that can actively deter trans individuals from accessing services.
“The single factor that has the greatest impact on the quality of your care and your experience as a patient is the number of staff on duty. But things are heading in the wrong direction, despite an ambitious plan, and today’s speech did not address the nurse vacancy issue head-on.
A spokesperson for Stonewall said: “This is a cynical attempt by the Secretary of State to ‘look busy’ instead of getting on with the graft of implementing the Women’s Health Strategy, and, besides being unworkable, all it will achieve is to restrict access to healthcare for trans women, by making it humiliating and dangerous.”
Backing her party colleague, Ms Braverman told broadcasters on a visit to Bolton: “Trans women have no place in women’s wards or indeed any safe space relating to biological women.
“And the Health Secretary is absolutely right to clarify and make it clear that biological men should not have treatments in the same wards and in the same safe spaces as biological women.
“This is about protecting women’s dignity, and women’s safety and women’s privacy. And that’s why I’m incredibly supportive and I welcome the announcement today by the Health Secretary.”
Ms Donelan, in her speech to the conference, said the review she was announcing will be conducted by Professor Alice Sullivan of UCL and will “produce robust guidance within six months”.
She said any “credible scientist will tell you that gender and sex are two different things”, insisting the party will “not sit idly by and watch an intolerant few stifle the light of science that leads us in the right direction”.
She added: “We are safeguarding scientific research from the denial of biology and the steady creep of political correctness. We are taking a stand before it suffocates Britain’s very identity and our values entirely. This is why we are depoliticising science.”
Elsewhere in his speech, Mr Barclay confirmed reports that he would announce the creation of three new medical schools at the University of Worcester, the University of Chester and Brunel University in Uxbridge, west London.
He also announced a £30 million fund aimed at speeding up the adoption of new technology within the NHS.
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