London - Staff in at least the United Kingdom’s 17 hospitals has been secretly banned from wearing veils, an investigation has found.

Front-line NHS staff, including doctors and nurses, have been told they cannot wear a niqab - a full veil which covers the face - while in contact with patients. Some hospitals have gone as far as to say veils cannot be worn in any situation where communication is essential - including staff training. Ministers on Wednesday night called for guidelines to ensure all patients can have ‘face-to-face’ contact with those who care for them. In light of the findings by the Daily Telegraph, the UK government ordered a review of all health service policies on workers’ uniforms.

Regulators will be asked to draw up clear rules so that communication with patients is always given priority over the right of a nurse or doctor to wear a veil.

The move comes at a time of increased public debate over Muslim head-dress, following the decision by a college in Birmingham to scrap a ban on veils amid protests from students.

David Cameron has indicated he would support public sector bodies wishing to ban staff from covering their faces. And earlier this week Nick Clegg said there were certain circumstances where it was ‘perfectly reasonable for us to say the full veil is clearly not appropriate’. MPs have called for a national debate.

There are 160 NHS trusts in England, all of which have no national guidance on uniform policies.

The vast majority leave such decisions to the discretion of local managers. In some cases, uniform policies specifically state that the veil can be worn by front-line staff for religious reasons. But 17 NHS hospitals had clear policies stating that front-line staff should not be allowed to cover their faces while in direct contact with patients.

Some went even further, to say that face veils should not be worn in situations where communication is essential, such as training. Many of the hospitals which have introduced explicit restrictions are in parts of the country that have high Muslim populations, such as East London, and Bradford and Dewsbury in Yorkshire.

Dr Dan Poulter, the health minister, has ordered a review of all current healthcare guidance on the issue. He said: ‘I am proud of the rich ethnic diversity of our healthcare workforce and support appropriate religious and cultural freedoms, but a vital part of good patient care is effective verbal and non-verbal communication.

‘Being unable to see a healthcare 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 healthcare 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 healthcare professionals and their patients.’

The policy, drawn up by Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation trust, which runs Bradford Royal Infirmary and St Luke’s Hospital, states: ‘To ensure effective communication, clothing which covers the face (veil/niqab) is not permitted for any staff in contact with patients, carers or visitors or for staff in other roles where clear face to face communication is essential, for example, training.’

Staff who wish to wear a veil when they are not working - such as in breaks, or during their lunch, or walking around the buildings - are told they may do so.

However they should be prepared to remove their veil if asked to check their identity against their ID badge, according to the guidance drawn up last year.

Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS trust, which runs three hospitals in the North West says face coverings should not be worn when delivering patient care in order to aid communication and minimise infection risks.

Dr Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative MP for Totnes in Devon and a former GP, said: ‘I think the same rules should apply to everyone: if I chose to wear a balaclava to work that would not be acceptable.

‘There are many areas - the courts, schools and hospitals - where the veil is simply not appropriate because you need clear communication.