Hospital overcrowding caused by pressure to meet government waiting list targets is fuelling the spread of the MRSA superbug, experts warned yesterday.
Hospital infections have reached epidemic proportions, causing an estimated 5,000 deaths every year.
Barry Cookson, director of the laboratory of hospital infection at the Public Health Laboratory Service in London, highlighted the link between Britain having 100 per cent of its beds occupied and the soaring infection rate.
He warned that the only way to contain the spread of infection was to have fewer beds occupied - most European countries have an 85 per cent occupancy rate. Speaking at the Science Media Centre in London, Professor Cookson said: "There are 17 types of MRSA in the UK which are behaving in an epidemic fashion spreading between hospitals.
"What all the evidence shows is that we have got to get bed occupancy down to 85 per cent but the Government has clearly got its waiting list targets and has signed up to them.
"I think we should be entering a national debate. Patients should realise that there's a certain safety level, and above that we start having problems."
The spread of MRSA, or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, has reached epidemic proportions in the past decade after first appearing in the 1960s.
The infection rate has risen by 600 per cent in the past 10 years to 7,000 a year and there are fears that it will double over the next six years. Fighting the infection costs the NHS an estimated £1bn a year and it is becoming increasingly difficult as the number of strains of the bug multiplies.
Professor Cookson said encouraging patients to travel to different hospitals of their choice raised the risk of spreading MRSA. Patient choice is a central plank of both the Government's health policy and that of the Conservative opposition. "Increasing patient choice opens up new opportunities for the potential of hospital-acquired infection transmission, and there should be appropriate systems in place to make sure that does not happen," he said.
Dr Alison Holmes, from the department of infectious diseases at Imperial College and Hammersmith NHS Trust, said: "We are working increasingly hard to try to protect the patients. However, admission pressures are enormous and contributing to the increase of the risk of transferring infections. We're trying to stick as many patients in a hospital as possible. This involves a lot of juggling and leads to an increased risk of infection."
Other European countries have tackled the superbug by using isolation wards, and Dr Homes said: "We have to recognise that admission pressures [in Britain] are affecting infections control practices. We are lacking in single rooms and it's incredibly difficult to isolate patients when there are inadequate supplies of single rooms."
The Department of Health acknowledged that hospitals had high occupancy rates as a result of cutting waiting lists, but emphasised that "very determined efforts" were being taken to reduce infection risks.
Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, said: "The NHS does run at high occupancy because it is treating many more patients and cutting waiting lists. In these circumstances, extra efforts have to be made to reduce the risk of infection and this is what the NHS is doing.
"As the infrastructure of the NHS is built up - more beds, more staff - it will be easier to control problems like MRSA. Very determined efforts are being made to focus action on MRSA and reduce its impact throughout the NHS."
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