News Roundup [abridged Versions Appear In The Paper Journal]

New plan launched to tackle Britain's high rate of hospital infection

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: (Published 11 December 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:1366
  1. Stephen Pincock
  1. London

    The British government has announced new plans to tackle the problem of hospital acquired infections, which affect about 100 000 Britons each year and generate costs of £1bn ($1.7bn; €1.4bn).

    The new plans, proposed by chief medical officer, Professor Liam Donaldson, include appointing a director of infection control with the power to enforce infection control measures at every NHS trust.

    The plans also promise a new drive to ensure that staff wash their hands frequently. The Commission for Health Audit and Inspection will also be asked to make infection control a key priority when assessing hospital performance.

    Announcing the new plans, the health secretary, John Reid, acknowledged that tackling nosocomial infections was not going to be easy. “While healthcare associated infections will never be entirely preventable, there is more that can be done,” he said in a statement.

    Professor Donaldson said the new plans would put reducing “superbug” infections at the centre of the government's drive for quality. “We share this problem with other countries, but we are determined to be up with the best in tackling it,” he said.

    Recently, Britain has struggled with one of the highest rates of methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection in northern Europe. Data from the first two years of a new surveillance programme show that the number of MRSA bacteraemias in England rose from 7281 in 2001 to 7384 in 2002.

    “What's useful about MRSA is that it's a surrogate marker of cross infection [in hospitals],” said Dr Barry Cookson, an expert in the field with the Health Protection Agency.

    Although Britain has similar rates of hospital acquired infections as its European neighbours, it has far more MRSA infection. The reasons are complex, he said, and include the fact that strains prevalent in the United Kingdom spread more easily.

    “The problem in this country is that we've got so many patients who are colonised with MRSA that on a daily basis we can have many introductions to MRSA into the hospital so the hospital is constantly challenged,” he told the BMJ.

    But Britain's major difficulty continues to be its overstretched health system. “What is different between the UK and many countries in northern Europe is that we have got extremely high bed occupancies,” Dr Cookson added.

    Added to that are endless problems recruiting enough nurses and other critical staff, leaving hospitals reliant on agency staff, who do not necessarily know infection control policies. “Then you've got a potential disaster.”

    Dr Cookson said that there was no quick fix. “Really the government's between a rock and a hard place, and I think they need rescuing. It needs a national debate with patient advocates to ask what we are going to do about this.”

    More details of the plans can be accessed at

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