A review is being launched into health service guidelines on full-face veils to ensure that patients always have “appropriate face to face contact”, it has emerged.
Health minister Dan Poulter claimed that face coverings can be a barrier to good communication between health care professionals and patients.
He has ordered a review of current advice and asked regulators to devise new uniform rules.
“I am proud of the rich ethnic diversity of our health care workforce and support appropriate religious and cultural freedoms, but a vital part of good patient care is effective verbal and non-verbal communication,” Dr Poulter told The Daily Telegraph.
“Being unable to see a health care professional’s face can be a barrier to good and empathetic communication with patients and their families.
“That is why I am writing to all health care regulators to ask them to look into this matter and to review their professional regulations, to ensure that there is always appropriate face to face contact between health care professionals and their patients.”
A ban on staff wearing the full-face veil when dealing with patients has already been introduced at 17 NHS hospitals, according to the newspaper.
Home secretary Theresa May insisted it is for women to ”make a choice” about what clothes they wear, including veils, but said there will be some circumstances when it will be necessary to ask for them to be removed.
Earlier this week a judge ruled that a Muslim woman will be allowed to stand trial while wearing a full-face veil but must remove it while giving evidence.
The ruling followed calls by Home Office minister Jeremy Browne for a national debate on whether the state should step in to prevent young women having the veil imposed upon them.
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt said he had a “great deal of sympathy” for patients who do not want to be treated by a doctor or nurse wearing a veil but insisted the matter was one for individual hospitals and professionals.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It’s a local matter. We very strongly support the autonomy of hospitals to make these decisions and implement policies in a way that is right in their area.
“But it’s also important that there is the right amount of face contact between clinicians and people they are looking after and that’s why Dr Daniel Poulter, one of my ministers, has written to the General Medical Council to make sure there are national guidelines in place.
“But how those guidelines are implemented has to be a local matter.”
Asked whether patients have the right to demand not to be treated by a doctor or nurse wearing a veil, Mr Hunt said: “They have the right to say that and I have a great deal of sympathy for that but I do think this should be a professional matter and not a political matter and that’s why I think the people who should be pronouncing on this are the body responsible for professional standards and not the politicians.”
Professor Carol Baxter, head of equality, diversity and human rights at NHS Employers, said: “Valuing diversity is one of the core values of the NHS - our staff come from all backgrounds as do our patients.
“However, to ensure the highest level of care is delivered, it is paramount that there are no barriers to effective communication between staff and patients.
“NHS organisations have a duty to determine appropriate dress for staff, depending on their role and the tasks they perform,” she said.
“Some would welcome guidance on this sensitive issue, which is why NHS Employers is very happy to work with the regulators to share the employers’ perspective and good practice on this topic.”
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