Trans hospital patients in England will be banned from being treated in female- and male-only wards, under plans announced by the health secretary.
In a speech to Conservative activists at the party’s conference in Manchester, Steve Barclay also promised a patient’s request to have intimate care provided by someone of the same biological sex would be respected.
He vowed to update the NHS constitution to give effect to the proposals after consultation, saying the changes would protect the privacy, dignity and safety of all patients.
However, the comments sparked a backlash from moderate Tory MPs, who fear LGBTQ+ people are being targeted as part of a wider culture war designed to appeal to the right of the party.
Jamie Wallis, a Conservative who became the first openly transgender MP last year, said Barclay was grappling with a non-issue.
Wallis cited freedom of information requests submitted to hospital trusts across the UK last year asking whether there were any complaints from biologically female inpatients about trans patients’ presence. None were recorded, according to the website Translucent.
Wallis said he was happy to work with Barclay to improve access to healthcare, adding: “I hope to see him solve problems which actually exist.”
Elliot Colburn, another Tory MP and chair of the cross-party group on global LGBT+ rights, said the distinction between sex and gender in patients was important.
He said trans people could still contract illnesses that correspond with their birth sex, such as ovarian and prostate cancer – and that women should “be made to feel as comfortable” during treatment.
But Colburn said there was a “need for clarity” – challenging Barclay to clear up questions including whether the policy would apply to those who had legally changed their gender. He added: “Given that the future of hospitals is in individual rooms anyway, what tangible change is actually needed?”
Other senior Tories were more strongly critical of Barclay’s speech, but asked to remain anonymous given their role in the government. One said: “I’m fed up of feeling intimidated by bigots and want people to know we’re still a home for LGBT+ people. Many of us will not back down.”
Barclay sought to appeal to Tory members, telling conference delegates in Manchester “we know what a woman is”.
As well as an announcement about more medical school places and an attack on “militant” striking junior doctors, Barclay devoted a significant chunk of his speech to social issues.
He criticised NHS trusts hiring for “bloated” diversity and inclusion teams and claimed patients’ voices were being ignored “when it comes to the importance of biological sex in healthcare”.
“If we do not get this right now, the long-term consequences could be very serious for the protection of women and future generations,” said Barclay, referencing the slogan of this year’s Tory conference that commits to making “long-term decisions”.
The health secretary claimed victory after the reversal of “unacceptable changes” to the NHS website that he said erased references to women for conditions such as cervical cancer, and said NHS staff had been told not to declare their pronouns to each new patient.
Barclay also confirmed he would change the NHS consultation later this year to “recognise the importance of different biological needs and protect the rights of women” – paving the way for a ban on trans patients being treated in male- or female-only wards.
Health leaders welcomed a focus on patient outcomes but poured scorn on Barclay’s social agenda.
Julian Hartley, the chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “Any proposed changes to the NHS constitution should have improving inclusivity at the heart of what they do and be subject to wide conversations and consultation.”
Ministers should focus on making the health service “fit for the future” by boosting capital and day-to-day spending, as well as pushing ahead with social care changes, he added.
Sara Gorton, the head of health at the Unison union, called Barclay’s speech “deflection politics at its worst” and accused him of taking his eye off bringing down waiting lists, ending strikes and reforming social care.
There are wider concerns that cabinet ministers are pursuing a culture war, after Suella Braverman said LGBTQ+ people living in fear of discrimination should not automatically be entitled to asylum in the UK.
Alicia Kearns, the Tory chair of the foreign affairs committee, said Braverman “crossed the line” by having “singled out” LGBTQ+ people. She told Times Radio that while addressing issues with the asylum process was important, “it should never be at the cost or at the expense of an individual, let alone a vulnerable community”.