Patients' groups will be able to stage snap inspections of hospitals and expose dirty wards as part of fresh attempts by ministers to tackle the "superbug" epidemic in Britain's hospitals.

The initiative to be announced tomorrow by John Reid, the Secretary of State for Health, is one of the measures to tackle highly infectious superbugs such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus) that now kill up to 20,000 patients a year.

However, experts, led by specialists at the official Health Protection Agency, writing in the journal of the US National Academy of Sciences, have warned these initiatives will fail because ministers are not spending enough on tackling the crisis.

Britain has the worst MRSA infection figures in Europe. Rates have jumped 15-fold since 1993, taking the total number of people infected with the bug to 40,000 a year.

Ministers have already pledged more than £60m to improve hospital cleanliness, and made tackling MRSA a priority for the NHS. The new "patient forums" at England's 572 hospital trusts would have powers to inspect the cleanliness and disease control at every hospital in the trust four times a year.

However, a team of experts led by specialists at the official Health Protection Agency claims that MRSA is so serious a threat that ministers need to introduce sweeping measures such as testing every high risk patient when they arrive in hospital. They advise that short-term attempts to stamp out a local epidemic will fail to have any long-term impact on the bug.

Patients' groups were also sceptical about the new campaign. Tony Field, chairman of the MRSA Support campaign, said: "We would raise the status and pay of hospital cleaners. Cleaning staff are as important as surgeons and nurses, and far more important than NHS managers.".

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