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23 Jan 2007 : Column 1298

What is the point of in-house or out-sourced cleaning if the management does not try to fulfil the cleaning contract and the model cleaning standards?

What about the rapid review panel? I am not sure which Minister is now responsible for that. It might be one of the Ministers in the Chamber today, or their colleague in the other place. The rapid review panel was supposed to expedite the introduction of new processes and technologies into the NHS that would be useful in combating infections. Of the 168 products that were assessed, three received a recommendation 1, which meant that they were already in use. Everything else got a recommendation 2 or 3.

Every company that I have spoken to has the same story about this process. They put together their dossier and provided a great deal of information. That took months, and they received no feedback. They were told that they would be given a recommendation. They were told, “Your product might well be useful. Off you go and prove it yourself. Run a clinical trial. Sell it to the NHS.” Those were things that they could and would have done themselves, but for the fact that they thought that the rapid review panel was there to help them to introduce those processes. Instead, it is a paper exercise with a committee that publishes obiter dicta from its throne, and nobody in the NHS is required to do anything about this at all. No one in the Department of Health uses health technology development budgets, for example, to take forward those technologies and prove that they work. Nothing gets done as a result of the so-called rapid review panel.

Those technologies are out there, however. Last Wednesday, I was at the recently established centre for health care-acquired infections at Nottingham university. In one of the presentations at its launch, it reported on portable clean air technology systems that have demonstrable benefits in reducing MRSA infections, and on a hydrogen peroxide vapour system that has very promising benefits for eliminating Clostridium difficile. But where is the support for that?

The National Audit Office report stated that more than half of the trusts had undertaken a risk assessment to determine what level of isolation facilities they required, yet only a quarter of those had put the measures in place, and that that had usually happened only in conjunction with new build or major capital projects. That is not good enough, and these things are not happening fast enough.

Last June, the Scottish health technology assessment reported that three isolation beds per 25-bed ward should be provided to back up a policy of screening all admissions. Will the Secretary of State commit today to providing the necessary capital resources to put in three isolation beds per 25-bed ward in order to support a policy of screening all admissions? The point was raised earlier about tackling community- acquired infection— [ Interruption.] No, you are the Government. I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. They are the Government, yet they sit on the Front Bench and ask me what I would do. Crikey!

I was talking about screening. Before the last election, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe and I said that, as a Government,
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we would spend the money necessary to introduce the screening of all admissions. The Government have done nothing about that until the document of November 2006 that they have just published. It states:

the Department of Health always provides us with a good read—

Instead of just handing out that document and letting trusts review their policies, will the Government put in place the isolation facilities that would enable the screening of all admissions to hospitals? They say that that should happen, but it is not happening.

I saw the equipment at the centre for health care-acquired infections at Nottingham university, and it was extremely interesting. Professor Richard James is taking the DNA testing of bacteria to the next stage, which will enable us rapidly to identify the different strains of infection, and of MRSA in particular. Being able to identify the genetic fingerprint of the different strains will enable us to determine the extent to which the MRSA infection in a hospital is the result of a community-acquired MRSA or a hospital-acquired MRSA. This will help us to understand the prevalence of those infections in hospitals.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has acknowledged that our hospitals now have in place one of the most comprehensive MRSA surveillance systems, so that we can track precisely what is going on. This debate is all very well and good, but will he commit himself to supporting a national health care infection reduction target—yes or no?

Mr. Lansley: That was a completely pointless intervention. We went into the last election with a commitment to a comprehensive programme of tackling infections, not just with a target. We included a commitment to a mandatory surveillance system that was wider than both the one that the Government had at the time and the one that they have implemented now. When we are in government, it will be our responsibility to ensure a comprehensive system of infection control.

That brings me to two final points. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) asked about uniforms. It is important to know what the Government are planning in that regard. The Leader of the Opposition has made it clear that we want the code of practice, which the Government put laboriously into legislation last year, to reflect the need for changing, showering and laundering facilities in hospitals. I accept that that will not be cheap, but it is not provided for in the code of practice, and the Government appear unable to commit to it. At the moment, the Royal College of Nursing tells us that half of nurses are not able to change at work, six out of 10 are not able to shower at work—we are all able to shower in Portcullis house, and nurses certainly need that facility at work—and six or seven out of 10 are not able to have uniforms laundered at work.

The issue relates to nurses’ working conditions, the standards that they want to maintain, a comprehensive approach to hygiene in hospitals and the confidence
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that the public have in the system on which they depend. The Minister said that Chris Beasley, the chief nursing officer, intended to set up an expert group to consider uniforms policy, which was to report in spring 2006. The latest reply in December 2006 said that it will report in spring 2007. Once again, the Government are all talk; there is no action.

Finally, in relation to “search and destroy”, the chief medical officer published “Winning Ways” in December 2003, which set out clearly the success—that is what he called it—that the Danes and the Dutch had achieved with a search and destroy strategy against MRSA. In September 2004, I challenged the Government to say whether they would have a search and destroy strategy. Their answer was that they were getting experts from abroad to come to the country and tell us what we should be doing. I challenged them again to say what they were doing. Lo and behold, more than three years later, Michael White wrote in last week’s Health Service Journal that the chief medical officer had sent a team to the Netherlands to find out about search and destroy strategies.

We knew in December 2003 that a search and destroy strategy was a possibility. I know why Ministers did not implement it: it is costly, and it would take six years, according to modelling by Nottingham university, for such a strategy to deliver a result whereby MRSA and other infections were no longer endemic in the NHS. The then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts, said, “I want a target now, and I want it all to be running in the middle of the next Parliament.” He made it up, and it is not good enough. It is not good enough that the Government are not taking action, and it is not good enough that their amendment makes no reference to the commitment and work of NHS staff in combating infections, makes no reference at all to C. difficile, and contains no commitment to further action to deal with infections.

The purpose of the debate and our motion is straightforward: we are calling for there to be no more excuses, no more complacency, no more targets that distort the task of dealing with infections, and no more rhetoric without results. The Government must commit themselves to action. Our motion sets out the kinds of actions required, which would support and enable the NHS to deliver the highest standards of infection control anywhere in the world, which we need and should aspire to have. Our motion, not least because Ministers have not volunteered any time since the election to discuss infection control, would require Ministers to come to the House every six months to tell us what they have been doing. I commend the motion to the House.

4.14 pm

The Secretary of State for Health (Ms Patricia Hewitt): I beg to move, To leave out from “House” to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

I spent yesterday morning with staff and patients at the Royal Marsden hospital in London, an NHS foundation trust that is giving superb care to some of our country’s most seriously ill cancer patients. Because patients’ safety is the hospital’s top priority, it takes infection control extremely seriously. I spent some time with Jen Watson, the senior sister in the critical care unit, who told me about some of the measures being taken. They include regular training in infection control every year for every member of staff, screening of all patients for MRSA when they arrive at the trust, isolation for any patient who is either at risk or diagnosed with MRSA, and alerting the rest of the hospital through the electronic patient record. That is a useful reminder to those who persist in saying that electronic patient records are a threat to high-quality health care rather than a real improvement.

There are aprons for every staff member in critical care, including doctors, and for every visitor. There are differently coloured aprons for those dealing with different beds in order to reduce the risk of cross-infection. Although the unit has the highest-risk patients in the hospital, it has the lowest cross-infection risks. There is alcohol gel by every bed, and every visitor as well as every staff member is strongly encouraged to use it. There is thorough cleaning and a weekly inspection by the ward sister with the cleaning staff. That applies not just to the critical care unit, but throughout the hospital.

Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): Did the Secretary of State look out of the window and see nurses getting out of their cars in their uniforms, having just dropped their children off at nurseries, or sitting in cars in which they had probably driven their dogs to take them for a walk? What use are the precautions that she has described when nurses are wearing their uniforms home and then wearing them back to the hospital? What is the point of all those procedures when basic, fundamental steps are not being taken?

Ms Hewitt: I am astonished at the hon. Lady’s attack on the integrity and hygiene of dedicated nurses at the Royal Marsden and, indeed, other hospitals. The point about a hospital taking infection control as seriously as the Royal Marsden does and introducing the measures that I have described, along with others, is that infection rates fall. Last year, for instance, the Royal Marsden aimed to lower its MRSA bloodstream infection rates to four cases in that year. In fact, it managed to reduce the number of cases to just two, and it made sure that it learned lessons from each of those cases.

The detailed description that Sister Watson gave me of the scrupulous attention that the Royal Marsden pays to infection control—attention that is replicated by thousands of staff throughout the NHS in very
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many hospitals—is a good reminder of what dedicated NHS staff do every day of the week to give patients the safest possible care.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): May I press the Secretary of State on the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries)? Does she believe that it is in the interests of hygiene for nurses to wear their uniforms between hospital and home, and between home and hospital? If the answer is no, what does she propose to do about it?

Ms Hewitt: I think that it is for the board and matrons of each hospital trust to establish the uniforms policy for that trust. I note with some bemusement that while on the one hand the Conservatives propose to abolish all targets, on the other they are telling every hospital where it should put its washing machines. That is an absurd position.

As the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) reminded us in referring to his mother’s death some years ago, hospital-acquired infections are not a new problem and are not confined to this country. We know that MRSA rates have been increasing every year since the early 1990s, and Conservative Members have acknowledged that. We knew when we were elected 10 years ago that there was a serious problem with MRSA and, more broadly, health care-acquired infections, and we have been doing more to tackle it. We were the first Government in the world to introduce mandatory reporting of MRSA—we did that in 2001. In 2004, we set the national target, to which the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) referred, for the NHS to halve MRSA bloodstream infection rates by March 2008.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con) rose—

Mr. Burrowes rose—

Ms Hewitt: I will give way to the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes).

Mr. Burrowes: May I press the Minister again? Why is it that this country, almost uniquely in Europe, supports the practice of nurses’ uniforms being laundered at home rather than by industrial laundering, which would ensure proper thermal disinfection?

Ms Hewitt: If the hon. Gentleman and the Conservative party think that the question of laundering nurses’ uniforms is the central issue when it comes to controlling infections—we have already had two interventions in about two minutes on the same point—they are not listening in the real world and they are not listening to the experts.

Daniel Kawczynski: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Ms Hewitt: I will make a little more progress before I give way again.

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As I say, we were the first Government in the world to introduce mandatory reporting. We followed that up with our target, since when MRSA rates have been falling—not simply because we set a target, but because we focused on the issue with the NHS and we supported it in taking the right action.

It is worth remembering the scale of the problem that was emerging. MRSA rates began to increase in the early 1990s. Figures from the Health Protection Agency reporting system show that in the last four years of the disastrous Conservative health policy from 1993 to 1996 MRSA rates were doubling, or nearly doubling, every year—an exponential growth in MRSA rates. I have no doubt that if we had not introduced mandatory reporting, made that a top priority for the NHS and set a target, those MRSA rates would have continued to rise. Instead, we first slowed the increase, then we got it down to single figures, and now the NHS is cutting the number of cases. Not only has there been an 8 per cent. reduction in MRSA rates in the past two years, but over the past two years in the NHS in the winter period, when hospitals are at their busiest, there has been an 11 per cent. reduction in MRSA rates.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): The Secretary of State mentioned the Health Protection Agency. One of the things that it has identified as being a factor behind hospital-acquired infections is bed occupancy rates. Can she comment on the fact that my local trust, Epsom and St. Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust, has decided to cut 200 beds across the trust—one in four of the beds—thus requiring each bed to be used more intensively? Occupancy rates, therefore, will go up. Surely that is a false economy, and there will be a rise in infection rates unless there is very careful investment to deal with the infection consequences of beds being over-occupied.

Ms Hewitt: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. For every hospital, patient safety has to be the No. 1 priority. As he will understand, as hospitals do more day care surgery and bring down the lengths of stay by ensuring that patients go home when it is right and clinically safe for them to do so—instead of staying in hospital for an unnecessarily long time, which happens too often—they need fewer beds, while giving patients better care with better health outcomes.

On the issue of the relationship between occupancy rates and MRSA and other infections, hospitals throughout the country with high bed-occupancy rates are also reducing their health care-acquired infection rates.

Daniel Kawczynski: On my numerous visits to the Royal Shrewsbury hospital, I have noticed that sometimes relatives of patients come to see their loved ones more than two at a time—sometimes three or four at a time—and sit on the beds. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is vital that the Government, via the media, get through to people that they should be very careful what they do when they go to see their relatives? They should not sit on beds. The nurses do not want to enforce that rule, but it is important.

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