Face veils in hospital under review
There is to be a review into whether NHS staff in England should be allowed to wear full face veils, according to the Department of Health.
Ministers have asked doctors' regulator the General Medical Council to ensure there is "appropriate" face-to-face contact with patients.
The actual number of women wearing the niqab in the NHS is thought to be "extremely low".
There is no national guidance on the issue.
Some hospitals say the veil can be worn for religious reasons. Others - including some in West Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and east London - rule the clothing is not permitted in order to ensure effective communication.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt told the BBC: "I think it is very important that patients do get proper contact with the doctors and nurses who are looking after them.
"Certainly if I was a patient myself, I'd want to be able to see the face of the doctor or nurse who was treating me."
However, he said hospitals should be able to come up with policies "in a way that is right in their area" and that national guidelines were a "matter for the professional standards bodies" rather than politicians.
Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust introduced rules banning the full face veil in 2009.
It said the move was to give clear rules to staff and that wearing the full veil was not an issue in the trust, either before or after the ban.
End Quote Umm Sufyaan Newly qualified nurse
If you're giving someone some medication, as long as they can hear you and understand you, there's no need for them to see your face”
The organisation's chief nurse, Juliette Greenwood, said: "Patients consistently tell us how important good, two-way communication is for them and this is particularly vital for those people with additional needs who rely on visual cues to assist understanding.
"We believe that seeing someone's face when communicating information to patients is therefore an effective and important part of healthcare."
There is no clear data on the number of women wearing the full veil in hospitals or for how many would wear the niqab if their hospital had not banned it.
"I think that's because the numbers are extremely low," said Mussurut Zia from the Muslim Women's Network.
She told the BBC: "Nobody's had to think about this until it's reared its head in recent days.
"I think the time is right. We need to have the debate and I do think we need, maybe not something in law, but we do need some guidelines."
A newly qualified nurse, Umm Sufyaan, 21, wants to be able to wear her niqab at work. She said she always felt "a bit uncomfortable on shift" when she was not wearing the full veil.
"If you're giving someone some medication, as long as they can hear you and understand you, there's no need for them to see your face."
This week, Home Office minister Jeremy Browne called for a national debate about wearing veils in public places such as schools.
Meanwhile, a judge ruled that a Muslim woman, who had refused to remove her niqab, could stand trial wearing a full-face veil, but must remove it to give evidence.
Judge Peter Murphy said: "The ability of the jury to see the defendant for the purposes of evaluating her evidence is crucial."
She argued that the patient and the staff had the right to be feel comfortable in hospital.
Health minister Dr Dan 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."
The shadow health minister, Andrew Gwynne, said the issue was "very sensitive" and that he hoped patients' wishes would be "taken on board by individual hospital trusts".
Prof Carol Baxter, from the organisation NHS Employers, said: "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. This must be done in close collaboration with patients, staff, faith groups and community representatives."
The Welsh government has announced that it has no plans to review the wearing of full face veils by NHS staff.