Amid growing concern about the number of patients catching superbugs such as MRSA and clostridium difficile while in hospital, the NHS introduced a new dress code for staff in January that was designed to prevent them transmitting bacteria. It has been reported that a radiographer was told by managers at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading that she must either follow the national dress code designed to combat superbugs and roll her sleeves up, or leave. She refused to abide by the rules and left her job. She says that she was discriminated against and forced to choose between her religious beliefs and her livelihood. Although she has vowed to campaign against the national dress code it is unclear if she has brought a claim against her former employer.
Jewellery and watches were also banned by the national dress code to reduce the risk of infection by staff. A number of recent decisions have considered the extent of an employee’s right to wear jewellery of religious significance. In R (on the application of Watkins-Singh) v Governing Body of Aberdare Girls' High School, a Sikh pupil wanted to wear her Kara (religious bangle) contrary to the school uniform policy. The high court held that the school's refusal to allow her to do so was indirect discrimination. The court considered the wearing of the bangle to be of “exceptional” importance to her religious culture and racial identity and its unobtrusive nature was also significant.
If the Muslim radiographer does bring a discrimination claim against Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust, it will be interesting to see if the employment tribunal finds in her favour on grounds of her religious belief which could open the flood gates to other claims or whether they find that the national dress code is an acceptable professional requirement for those working in clinical areas and is justified on grounds of protecting patients’ safety.