Ministers are to order an independent inquiry into a hospital stricken by the outbreak of a lethal infection that has claimed 12 lives and infected 300 patients.

Ministers are to order an independent inquiry into a hospital stricken by the outbreak of a lethal infection that has claimed 12 lives and infected 300 patients.

The Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, said yesterday that the inquiry into Stoke Mandeville Hospital would be held once the outbreak of Clostridium Difficile, was under control.

The Independent revealed last week that a strain of the bug, which is more virulent and harder to eradicate than existing strains, was identified at the hospital 18 months ago but attempts to control it have failed.

The number of infections peaked in March 2004 before falling back and then peaked a second time in February this year. Managers at the hospital in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, have been criticised for ignoring the advice of infection control experts because of pressure to meet government targets on waiting times.

Ms Hewitt said: "The only thing that matters now is to get the infection under control. I am not going to distract hospital staff from that. Once it is under control, I will order an independent inquiry. My officials are talking to the Healthcare Commission about what form the inquiry will take."

Infections with C.difficile have soared in the past decade from about 1,200 cases in 1990 to more than 43,000 in 2004. Although some of the rise is due to better reporting, infection control experts say the increase has been dramatic.

The bug mainly affects the elderly, causing severe diarrhoea, and led to 934 deaths in 2003, about the same as MRSA. Although it is not resistant to antibiotics like MRSA, about one in five cases is difficult to treat. The bug also forms spores that linger on the hands and on floors, furniture and bedding. These are difficult to remove with conventional cleaning.

Advice from hospitals in North America, which is thought to be the source of the new strain, has led to a change in cleaning materials used in Stoke Mandeville from chlorine bleach to hydrogen peroxide to get rid of the spores.

Asked if government targets for cutting waiting lists had contributed to the increase in hospital infections, Ms Hewitt said: "Patients and the public made it very clear to us they wanted waiting lists to come down ... But as well as quantity we have to improve the quality of care at the same time. I expect NHS trust leadership to focus on hospital infections and get it down to the absolute minimum. It cannot be left to hospital infection teams. This is something chairmen and chief executives have to take personal responsibility for."

The Healthcare Commission, the Government's NHS watchdog, said it understood the concern of patients and staff about outbreaks of infection in hospitals and the need to learn from them. Anna Walker, the chief executive, said: "We will be looking into the issue as the Secretary of State has requested."

David Lidington, Tory MP for High Wycombe, said: "My hope is that this inquiry will learn the lessons not just of what happened at Stoke Mandeville but also look at the national picture."

In a statement. Buckinghamshire Hospitals NHS Trust, which includes Stoke Mandeville, said it has been working to combat the infection for more than a year with the Health Protection Agency and the Strategic Health Authority.

"These agencies have implemented a wide range of measures in tackling a virulent strain of the infection, which the NHS has little experience of dealing with and it will be of great value to patients to share the learning and good practice from Stoke Mandeville Hospital. We welcome the opportunity of a review."

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