Southend Hospital NHS is risking fines by breaking rules banning mixed-sex wards, figures reveal.

A leading health think tank says rising demand is leaving staff with no choice but to break the rules – which can carry a financial penalty.

The hospital recorded 12 breaches of mixed-sex accommodation rules during 2019, NHS figures show. It had not recorded any breaches during the previous 12 months.

NHS trusts can be fined £250 per patient each time they break the rules, meaning Southend Hospital faces fines of £3,000 over the course of the year.

Denise Townsend, director of nursing at Southend Hospital, said: “Our patients’ privacy and dignity is important and we have processes in place for safely accommodating patients onto wards that best meet their care needs. In exceptional circumstances to provide immediate, safe care it may be necessary to accommodate both male and female patients within the same area which we aim to resolve within four hours.

“We have not received any fines for this.”

The ban applies to any area where patients are admitted on beds or trolleys even if they do not stay overnight. It does not include instances where mixed accommodation is considered justified, such as in intensive care.

Lucy Watson, chair of the Patient’s Association charity, said failing to follow the rules could cause additional anxiety for people already worried about being in hospital.

“We are very concerned that so many people are still being placed in inappropriate hospital accommodation, many years after mixed-sex wards were supposedly abolished,” she said.

“Patients deserve to be treated with dignity, and at a time when many will be feeling frail or vulnerable, it is vital that they feel some sense of privacy and safety.

“Patients shouldn’t find themselves in a bed next to a member of the opposite sex, particularly if they need to use a bedpan, or have intimate care.”

NHS England said enforcement of the fines is left to individual Clinical Commissioning Groups, which plan and buy healthcare from trusts, who could decide to waive them.

December saw the number of breaches recorded across England hit the highest level for the same month since 2010, with more than 2,000 incidents were recorded – an increase of 20 per cent in one year.