Leading article: Infected by political calculation

Monday 16 June 2008 00:00 BST

The latest report from the Healthcare Commission will make worrying reading for anyone awaiting an operation. According to the NHS watchdog, more than a quarter of health trusts are failing to meet the Government's new standards on hygiene, which were brought in to combat the rise in recent years of the "superbugs" MRSA and Clostridium difficile.

The new code requires hospital staff to pay more attention to decontaminating surgical equipment, cleaning wards and providing information to patients on hygiene. The commission's chief executive, Anna Walker, says there is "room for a lot of improvement" in infection control. The 103 failing NHS trusts have been given 10 months to improve or face possible closure.

The Government was right to introduce these stricter standards of cleanliness. Britain has the worst record of hospital infections in Europe, and patient surveys reveal that superbugs have overtaken waiting times as their prime source of concern. The situation could not go unchallenged.

But as so often with this administration, new rules have been accompanied with a heavy dose of politically-motivated and unhelpful meddling. Last September, Gordon Brown announced that the 1,500 NHS hospitals in England would be subjected to a "deep clean". It sounded good. This would involve clearing wards, washing walls and scrubbing behind radiators.

But there was a problem. There was no clinical evidence to suggest this was where effort ought to be directed. According to infection control experts, superbugs were being spread not by bacteria multiplying in neglected corners of wards, but by sloppy daily cleaning procedures and the failure of many medical staff to wash their hands properly. Yet the Prime Minister ploughed on anyway because the idea of a deep clean was deemed a way of communicating to the typical voter how seriously he was taking the problem of superbug infections. Most hospitals finished their deep clean three months ago and, as we can see from these latest figures, it has made very little difference to the standards of cleanliness in our wards.

It is true, as health ministers point out, that superbug infection rates are falling. But that is scant comfort when, as this latest Healthcare Commission report points out, the conditions for more outbreaks still exist in an alarming number of hospitals. This is a lesson on how little is achieved and how much is wasted when politicians put the chase for favourable headlines above expert advice. It is not only our hospitals that urgently need to clean up their act.

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