LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The British government has announced a review into whether staff working for the state-run National Health Service (NHS) in England should be allowed to wear full face veils, according to local media reports.
Members of parliament have asked the country's General Medical Council regulatory body to look into the matter to ensure there is "appropriate" face-to-face contact between staffers and patients.
Seventeen NHS hospitals have banned their staffers from wearing full face coverings when dealing with patients, according to an investigation by the Daily Telegraph newspaper.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt told Sky News he had a "great deal of sympathy" for patients who would rather not be treated by a doctor or nurse with their face fully covered.
But he added that: "This is something that is decided locally by NHS trusts and I strongly support the principle that hospitals should have that local autonomy.
"But I do want to make sure we have the right professional guidelines in place so that patients can be confident that they are able to see a doctor or nurse's face whenever they should."
Hunt said that, as a patient, he would always want to see the face of who was looking after him.
The government's move comes a week after a judge ruled that a Muslim woman would be allowed to stand trial wearing a full veil on condition that she would remove it when giving evidence.
The case has reopened a heated debate on whether full face veils should be worn in Britain, an issue that encompasses delicate subjects such as freedom of expression, religious tolerance and the integration of minorities.
Earlier this month, an English college came under fire for banning students and staff from wearing any face coverings.
In an interview with the Telegraph, Health Minister Dan Poulter, a doctor himself, said that: "A vital part of good patient care is effective verbal and non-verbal communication." He added that being unable to see a healthcare professional's face can be "a barrier to good and empathetic communication with patients and their families".
Poulter urged professional health regulators to review their professional regulations on the matter in order to ensure "there is always appropriate face-to-face contact between healthcare professionals and their patients."