For generations doctors have been instantly recognisable by their long white coats.

But yesterday the distinctive garments were banned, along with ties and long-sleeved shirts, under the latest moves to reduce the risk of hospital infections.

The new NHS dress code states that doctors should dress in a "professional manner" and wear short-sleeved shirts instead of long-sleeved.

They should not wear white coats or ties.

There was no guidance on how often they should wash their work clothing, a government spokesman said.

The doctors' new dress code was announced yesterday alongside the launch of nationwide uniforms designed to make nurses and support staff more easily identifiable.

In stark contrast to the consultants' trademark white, nursing and auxiliary workers currently wear uniforms in a range of more than 150 colours.

In future, nurses will wear tunics in one of four shades of blue, depending on their rank, while porters, domestics and other support staff will be limited to two shades of green.

The Scottish Government said that all the uniforms are short-sleeved, further helping to reduce the spread of hospital-acquired infections like MRSA.

A national NHS uniform is expected to save health boards money as they benefit from bulk-buying from a single national supplier.

NHS workers were also told that "wherever possible" they should not wear their uniforms outside work because of concerns over hygiene.

But not all hospitals have adequate laundry or changing facilities, prompting a government audit of the situation.

Staff at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary (ERI) yesterday welcomed the new tunics, worn with trousers, which are also lighter and more flexible than existing clothing.

Doctors welcomed the dress code too, but warned that the best way to tackle infections was through proper hand washing.

Announcing the move at the ERI yesterday, Health Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: "There are so many different types and colours of uniform that if you walk into a hospital now you cannot tell which staff do which job.

"The national uniforms will be phased in as boards need to renew existing uniforms. We have not quantified the overall savings but it will lead to more value for money."

She added: "There is evidence to suggest that ties, long sleeves and white coats can all increase the risk of infection spread."

A BMA spokeswoman said yesterday: "The BMA supports the intention behind the principles ... however, we would reinforce the point that hand hygiene is the quickest, cheapest and easiest means of preventing the spread of infection in hospitals."

Changing habits on the wards

Martin Williams

Nursing uniforms have come a long way. From the prim white dresses to the scrubs that are popularly used today, medical attire has undergone revolution for the sake of style and function.

The first nurse uniforms were based on a nun's habit because before the 19th century it was usually nuns who took care of the ill. One of Florence Nightingale's first students is said to have designed the original uniform.

The First World War reinforced the importance of military nurses and they typically wore Tippets, short, shoulder-covering cloaks which bore badges or stripes denoting their ranks.

Between 1920 and 1939, dresses became shorter which was seen as more practical. Cap styles and buckle types begin to differentiate positions within the hierarchy.

The 1950s was a golden age of uniforms. As hospitals became warmer, short sleeves appeared and bib-front aprons, cloaks and capes became all the rage.

In Scotland in the 1960s, trews or trousers were worn by district nurses in winter while scrub vests and "pants" arrived from the US but were confined to operating theatres. Tights began to replace stockings.

In the 1970s, white disposable paper caps replaced cotton ones and a national uniform of blue and white check dresses was predominant. The matron ruled the roost in a navy uniform.

Plastic disposable aprons replaced traditional ones in the 1980s, while outer wear began to disappear and caps were discarded.

From the 1990s, tunic and trousers sets became popular and scrub vests and pants escaped from the theatre and on to hospital wards. Trainers replaced "duty shoes".

Today more and more hospitals and NHS trusts have had nurses dressed in polo shirts and scrubs, but traditionalists say they have become indistinguishable from cleaners and domestic staff. A far cry from the Florence Nightingale look.