Leading article: Clean wards and dirty politics

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The Independent Online

The Government's vaunted "deep clean" of England's 1,500 hospitals is now over. It has been announced that 93 per cent of NHS trusts have completed the clean and that the remainder are due to finish soon. So should we be celebrating a government target more or less achieved and a battle won in the war against the lethal super-bugs? Hardly.

The Conservatives have been critical of the scheme because not all the money promised to cover the costs has been delivered. The party has acquired figures through a freedom of information request that supposedly show that only £15.6m of the £57.5m spent on the clean has been handed over by Strategic Health Authorities to NHS trusts to pay for it. The Government contests this, but whoever is right, the issue of funding surely shrinks into insignificance when set next to the sheer wrong-headedness of the initiative.

Patients and visitors are the primary carriers of superbugs such as MRSA and Clostridium difficile, not the walls and floors of hospitals. The root of the problem is not viruses hiding behind dusty radiators or in hard-to-reach corners, but the dirty hands and sleeves of medical staff.

As infection-control experts have consistently pointed out, the only sustainable solution to hospital-acquired infections is regular cleaning and a requirement for staff and visitors to wash their hands properly. Scrubbing wards themselves from top to bottom is a short-term fix. What is needed is a sustained effort to improve hygiene, not a one-off "deep clean".

This has been one of the most glaring recent examples of government by gimmick. The idea grabbed headlines and made the Government look as if it was taking decisive action over rising superbug death rates. But it missed the real point. And the manner in which expert advice on the best way to tackle infections was ignored was quite indefensible.

The Government claims vindication by pointing out that infection rates for C. difficile and MRSA are now falling. But how much further might they have fallen if the millions spent on this deep-cleaning exercise had been invested in more effective infection-control schemes?

What this episode also demonstrates is the folly of ministers attempting to run the NHS from Whitehall. One suspects that as long as ministers are in charge of deciding how our hospitals deploy their resources they will always be tempted by such populist, yet ineffective, schemes.

The junior health minister Ben Bradshaw suggests that those who criticise the "deep clean" are "knocking the NHS". On the contrary, it is the politicised meddling in our health service by ministers that the exercise's many critics, quite justifiably, deplore.