The LGBTQ diversity programme run by England’s National Health Service (NHS) is being shut down, VICE News can reveal.
The NHS Rainbow Badge scheme employs a team of people to assess LGBTQ inclusion policies across the health service, as well as providing hundreds of thousands of healthcare staff with Pride flag pin badges to wear at work.
Civil servants have told VICE News that UK government officials within the Department of Health and Social Care encouraged NHS bosses to pull the funding of the diversity scheme, as part of a wider pushback against LGBTQ inclusion—and especially trans inclusion programmes.
After approving more funding for the project several months ago, whistleblowers tell VICE News that NHS England suddenly “u-turned and ghosted” those involved. Services have now been “wound down,” and some staff are struggling to work while NHS England refuses to communicate with them about what has changed.
Responding to these claims, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said, “taxpayers rightly expect value for money, which is why we expect the NHS and all of the department’s arms-length bodies to continuously review whether their diversity and inclusion roles are good value, and to always consider ways to improve.”
VICE News understands that many people working directly on the project have not been told it will be ending. Those familiar with the plans said hospitals can expect to be briefed on the project closure “within the next few weeks.”
“The funding cut is especially interesting timing considering it’s February, which in the UK is LGBT History Month, and this year’s theme is medicine,” a whistleblower told VICE News.
While the highly-successful programme was commissioned by the NHS, it was being led by a group of LGBTQ charities, including the LGBT Foundation and Stonewall. Stonewall confirmed to VICE News that the scheme’s funding was cut and the charity stopped being involved as a “main partner” last September. The LGBT Foundation did not comment.
Other charities that were previously involved have confirmed that hundreds of thousands of pounds of funding has been “secretly pulled” from the diversity scheme, after the funding was initially approved by NHS England. They added that NHS Rainbow Badge services have been “wound down to nothing,” and bosses have not communicated why.
“The funding cut is especially interesting timing considering it’s February, which in the UK is LGBT History Month, and this year’s theme is medicine.”
VICE News asked NHS England when it will issue an update, as well as what will happen to current staff, merchandise, and the thousands of pounds of previously allocated funding.
While we were initially told that funding has been pulled and this will be communicated publicly soon, an NHS England spokesperson declined to answer our questions, instead responding: “The NHS Rainbow Badge programme is an important initiative to address LGBT health inequalities and to support LGBT inclusion, for both patients and staff. Our work in this area will continue.”
This is not the first time the government has intervened in the NHS Rainbow Badge scheme, one whistleblower added. “Last year, the national team tried to change the pin badge to the ‘Progress Pride flag,’ which is more inclusive for trans people and people of colour. It was blocked by the Department of Health and Social Care. They said it was too woke.”
According to another insider, it has not yet been decided what will happen to the rainbow badges that thousands of staff currently wear at work every day, or to the Rainbow Badge awards some hospitals have been given for inclusive policies. That person believes “it could be up to each NHS trust to decide whether they want them gone.”
“There is no way that the NHS Rainbow Badge scheme can keep going without funding. If they wanted to continue the work, they would have started it months ago – or told staff what’s happening,” the person who has previously worked alongside the project told VICE News. They, along with all sources quoted in this article, asked to remain anonymous for fear of backlash from the NHS.
Over two thirds of England’s NHS trusts have provided their employees with rainbow badges, and over a third have signed up to be assessed for how well they reduce the barriers LGBTQ people face when accessing healthcare.
Insiders say the scheme has become “increasingly difficult” to work on because of hostility from the UK government and right-wing media. In recent months, it has been attacked by the Daily Mail, The Sun, The Telegraph, Talk TV, and GB News.
One whistleblower told VICE News: “The Rainbow Badge scheme is the most vanilla scheme ever, it’s just about basic healthcare and recognition of health inequalities for LGBTQ people. The continuing threats to trans health provision have now progressed into LGBTQ health, and that’s a very bad sign.”
“The Rainbow Badge scheme is the most vanilla scheme ever, it’s just about basic healthcare and recognition of health inequalities for LGBTQ people.”
Last year, The Sun claimed the NHS had “sick priorities” for trying to improve the experience of LGBTQ staff and patients, and compared the scheme to the Lucy Letby murders. Letby, a nurse at the Countess of Chester Hospital, was found guilty of murdering seven babies and attempting to murder six others in August 2023.
In response to the negative coverage, a source close to the former Health Secretary Steve Barclay told the Daily Mail, “Any scheme which does not recognize the role of women and biological sex in the NHS directly contradicts ministerial steers and raises serious questions of propriety. The Secretary of State has been very clear that women should be called women and freedom of speech upheld. He expects that guidance to be followed.” Victoria Atkins replaced Steve Barclay as Health Secretary in November 2023.
The current government’s hostility towards the NHS Rainbow Badge scheme is a massive change from the support that it once received from politicians. Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock was seen wearing his rainbow pin badge throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and he previously said he loved the scheme.
The programme began in 2018 with staff at one of the UK’s busiest children’s hospitals, the Evelina London, wearing NHS badges designed in the style of the LGBTQ Pride flag. The NHS doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers wanted to wear them to “demonstrate that they’re aware of the issues that LGBTQ people can face when accessing healthcare.”
The following year, the project was taken over by NHS England and rolled out nationally. In the first year and a half of the project, a quarter of a million NHS staff signed up and received a rainbow badge, pledging their support to LGBTQ colleagues and patients.
In the first year and a half of the project, a quarter of a million NHS staff signed up and received a rainbow badge.
In recent years, the programme was expanded, with a full-time team working on it, and a grading system was developed for the hospitals and trusts that signed up. Points would be awarded to hospitals for positive moves towards LGBTQ inclusion, like delivering training sessions, having gender neutral toilets, and encouraging medics to ask patients for their pronouns. The best organisations were given gold, silver, or bronze awards.
Out of 215 NHS trusts in England, over 150 launched NHS Rainbow Badges and over 70 had been graded for their LGBTQ inclusivity.
Care providers and patients across the country have frequently spoken out about how the scheme has made them feel more comfortable in healthcare environments.
Speaking to the NHS press team, a staff nurse said, “sometimes a baby will have two mums and I’ve noticed that some parents haven’t always felt comfortable being open with all staff members. Once I saw a mum looking at my badge and after that she knew it was okay to just be herself.”
VICE US – LGBTQ
The NHS Rainbow Badge scheme has been adopted by hundreds of hospitals and hundreds of thousands of healthcare workers.