Thousands of patients will remain at risk from superbugs, despite a £57m "deep clean" of hundreds of hospitals, because a vital screening programme will not be put in place for at least a year.
One of the world's leading experts on hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) warned yesterday that every one of the hospitals cleaned under Gordon Brown's flagship health policy will be back to square one as soon as the cleaners finish, because no one is stopping bacteria such as MRSA and Clostridium difficile from coming into the buildings.
Professor Hugh Pennington of Aberdeen University said the deep-clean programme would be "an expensive waste of resources".
The ward-by-ward cleaning operation was launched last year amid growing concern about a worrying increase in deaths from HAIs including C. difficile and MRSA, which claim more than 5,000 lives a year. Official figures reveal that the number of deaths with MRSA mentioned as an underlying cause rose from 54 in 1993 to 1,652 in 2006.
More than 300 hospitals have until tomorrow to complete the programme, announced by the Prime Minister in his Labour conference speech last September. The Department of Health said yesterday that 306 out of 328 hospital trusts had completed cleaning while the rest were "well on the way to completion".
The announcement conflicted with a survey of 127 acute trusts, published yesterday, which suggested that two out of three of those in the report had not completed their deep cleans, 15 would not meet the deadline and one did not expect to finish until October.
But the Government was warned yesterday that the operation would be a waste of time, because hospitals will not be obliged to start testing new patients for MRSA for another year. Scientists estimate that 30 per cent of the population carry the MRSA bug.
Despite this, a government target for hospitals to screen all "pre-booked" patients for the disease will not be in force until next March. The deadline for enforcing a more hardline requirement to test all emergency patients is a vague "as soon as possible over the next three years". Instead, the DoH has ordered a series of measures, including regular hand-washing on wards.
Professor Pennington said: "Politicians get hung up on cleaning, but the major issue isn't environmental; it is people bringing the bugs into hospitals. Once the bacteria hit the floor they die off. The natural home of MRSA is either in infected patients or up the noses of the rest of us, so that is what they should be attacking."
The cleaning firms hired for the work have also complained about the management of the programme.
A "hospital cleanliness summit" hosted by the DoH last month was marked by complaints about bureaucracy and resources, primarily from members of the Cleaning and Support Services Association, The Independent on Sunday has established.
Andrew Large, the association's director general, pointed to "the lack of leadership on cleaning issues within the NHS", and "the lack of resources for cleaning".
A DoH spokeswoman said the deep-clean project was never meant to be a "magic bullet" solution to the issue of superbugs. She added: "It is important to patients that they are treated in a clean hospital. That is what they tell us over and over again."