England's new top nurse with the tough job of ridding hospital wards of the MRSA superbug was appointed by Health Secretary John Reid today.

England's new top nurse with the tough job of ridding hospital wards of the MRSA superbug was appointed by Health Secretary John Reid today.

Chris Beasley, who started her career in 1962 at the Royal London Hospital, will take the post of Chief Nursing Officer.

Dr Reid said her top priority was to improve hospital cleanliness and tackle hospital acquired infections like MRSA, estimated to be responsible for at least 5,000 deaths a year.

On a visit to the Middlesex Hospital in central London, Dr Reid said he was delighted to welcome Ms Beasley to this "vitally important job".

"I have made clear that her first concern must be to ensure all NHS hospitals come up to the standard of the best when it comes to cleanliness and infection control.

"Everyone has a role to play - hospital cleaners are as important as consultants when it comes to these issues.

"Nurses, doctors and other staff are in the frontline of this struggle, and I am determined hospital managers and my department give them the support they need," Dr Reid said.

The Health Secretary today also published a Matron's Charter, giving matrons the lead role in setting standards for cleanliness.

The Department of Health said the Charter was a 21st century work plan for hospitals' cleanliness based on a 19th century instruction from Florence Nightingale.

That instruction stated: "Let whoever is in charge keep this simple question in her head, not 'How can I always do this right thing myself?' but 'How can I provide for this right thing to be always done?"'

Dr Reid denounced Tory criticism of his plans as "one of the most hypocritical positions I have ever heard the Conservatives take".

The problem of hospital cleanliness had its root in the Conservative policy of requiring health managers to contract out responsibility for cleaning and the Tories had never published figures on infection rates in hospitals, he said.

Dr Reid told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The contracting-out system has led to control of cleaning being out of the hands of the nurses, matrons and sisters and in some cases it has led to those doing the cleaning feeling not part of the team.

"I am not going to ban contracting out at the moment... but if there is going to be a contract out-house, then the nursing staff must be involved in the drawing up of that contract so that there is clear control for clinical nursing staff on the ground."

He added: "The Conservatives refused for 20 years to collect statistics. We are the first government to make sure that hospitals have to publish infection rates and the first government to ask the healthcare inspectorate to make cleanliness part of hospital assessment."

People had been picking up bugs in hospitals for decades, but at different times different viruses are predominant, he said.

The MRSA superbug which is currently most prevalent in hospitals is more dangerous to humans than those which were found in earlier decades.

"Hospital-acquired infections have been around 9% for 50 years, so the total hospital-acquired infections have stayed much the same," said Dr Reid.

The charter includes a 10-point commitment plan outlining matrons' priorities for keeping hospitals clean.

It states that the patient environment should be well maintained, clean and safe and cleaning staff should be made to feel part of the ward team.

This would include making sure cleaners were invited to team parties and nights out.

It also reiterates that nurses and infection control teams should be involved in drawing up cleaning contracts.

Matrons already have the authority to withhold payment where they feel insufficient cleaning work has been carried out.

But Dr Reid said contract cleaners would still have an important role to play and he did not intend making all hospitals do their own in-house cleaning.

He said one of the reasons for the growth in MRSA was the last Conservative Government's move to contract out more cleaning work, putting cheapness above cleanliness.

"I have made it clear that cheapness is not a substitute for cleanliness," Dr Reid said.

"There will be no two-tier payment of contract cleaners where they are paid less than would be expected for the job.

"Some contractors are very good and some hospitals who do their own cleaning are not so good.

"The chief nursing officer will make this her first priority, to look at the whole area of cleanliness."