Britain has the worst record for tackling superbug infection among big European nations, according to a report that reveals the full scale of the MRSA crisis.

The findings will add to the pressure on the Government to invest hundreds of million of pounds in new hospital beds to help the NHS get back to the low infection rates of 25 years ago.

The report by the European Antimicrobial Surveillance System, which was sponsored by the European Commission, says only Malta, Cyprus, Romania and Portugal have worse levels of MRSA infection than Britain.

Testing in UK hospitals showed that 45 per cent of those infected with the bug, Staphylococcus aureus, had its drug resistant form, MRSA. On intensive care units, the level of infection was even higher, at 65 per cent.

The best performing European countries have MRSA rates of 10 per cent and lower. Experts say that the countries that have the lowest super-bug rates isolate victims - something that hardly ever happens in the UK.

MRSA levels in Norway are as low as 1 per cent with no infections in intensive care patients. In Sweden, infection levels are similarly low as are those in Denmark, Estonia and Finland.

In France, which has a 20 per cent infection rate, strict hygiene measures include the cleaning of wards two to three times a day. Patients are regularly tested and if necessary isolated.

"We knew a decade ago that the way to make an impact against MRSA was to cut off its spread by isolating those with the infection," said Dr Robert Spencer, the chairman of the Hospital Infection Society.

"If we could start to do that then I am sure we would see infection levels beginning to drop. It's not the total solution but it would go a long way to helping."

Microbiologists leading the fight against MRSA in Britain's hospitals say levels of MRSA and other infections were much lower 25 years ago than they are now. Cleaning and hand washing are important, but isolation would probably have the single biggest impact.

Dr Spencer said: "Twenty or thirty years ago we had the isolation wards where we could put infected patients. Now they are side by side with the well, and is it any wonder that MRSA spreads in such situations? What we need is create new isolation beds so that we have spaces to treat infected patients."

Government figures show MRSA cases in England increased from just over 1,000 in 1996 to more than 7,000 last year. Currently, the only kind of MRSA hospitals have to report is bloodstream infections. However neither MRSA wound or urinary tract infection rates are collected and the real fear is that the true MRSA level may be as high as 30,000 infections a year.