Less than half of hospitals have the high standards of cleanliness necessary to defeat MRSA and other infections, a government survey has shown.

Less than half of hospitals have the high standards of cleanliness necessary to defeat MRSA and other infections, a government survey has shown.

A day after The Independent highlighted the problem of hospital infections that kill 5,000 patients a year, the Government published the results of inspections of 1,184 hospitals and units in England.

The survey showed that 574 hospitals (48 per cent) were rated good or excellent for cleanliness. The remainder scraped through as "acceptable", with 24 rated "poor" and three "unacceptable".

The lowest ranked hospital was Manchester Royal Infirmary where the Edale Unit and York House were both rated unacceptable.

Lord Warner, a health minister, said that the high number of hospitals rated only "acceptable" was "unfortunately large" and could indicate that they were "happy to be average".

He said the Government wanted more of them to move into the "good" and "excellent" categories. Of the 24 hospitals and units rated as poor, 15 contracted out cleaning services. The three units classed as unacceptable all did so.

To head off criticism that some hospitals had opted for the cheapest deals rather than the highest standard, the Government published a guide yesterday containing a "model contract" that set out how different areas of the hospital should be cleaned.

Lord Warner denied that there was a simple causal link between standards of cleanliness and infections. Many complex factors contributed to MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), he said. Next week a science summit on hospital-acquired infections,"Learning from the best", is to take place, with discussion of how to tackle the bugs.

Britain has the highest rate of MRSA in Europe. Figures for 2002 show that 44 per cent of Staphylococcus aureus infections of the blood were resistant to methicillin compared with 1 per cent in the Netherlands. The Dutch have cut their MRSA rate by implementing a policy of "search and destroy" that involves screening patients for the infection, and isolating in single rooms in modern hospitals those found to be positive.

Health department officials in the UK say that the pressure on hospitals and beds has prevented the same strategy being implemented here.

Andrew Lansley, the Tory health spokesman, said that the Government was "all talk on hospital cleanliness".

He added: "The Government's plan to combat MRSA announced today is the 23rd in a long line of initiatives launched since 2000. These headline-grabbing schemes hide the reality that hospital- acquired infections are increasing.

"Whitehall targets have been a key cause in the proliferation of MRSA since 1997, because in order to meet a target wards are not shut down for cleaning. Patient safety is being compromised."

Dave Prentis, the general secretary of the health union Unison, said: "There is no magic solution, no complicated formula.If you want cleaner hospitals, if you want to fight off the superbugs, you must have more cleaners. At the heart of the rise in infection rates is the fact that over the past 15 years, the number of hospital cleaners has been cut by more than half.

"MRSA costs the country 5,000 deaths a year and costs the NHS more than £1bn a year. Let's have a bit of common sense here and get the basics right."