HEALTH – CLEANLINESS IN HOSPITALS – 21 June 2004

Dr Julian Lewis: I, too, am concerned about the number of deaths occurring in quite major hospitals near my constituency. What role does my hon. Friend see for the HPA in raising standards of cleanliness and in ensuring that barriers to infection are instituted in hospital wards, so that there is better protection?

[Shadow Secretary of State for Health (Andrew Lansley): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking that interesting question. The HPA's role is important, but it is essentially about surveillance – discovering the extent to which there is infection and the extent to which it is acquired in hospital, and reporting on the circumstances. However, there is discontinuity between that role and setting out the action plan – what is to be done about the problem. It was the Chief Medical Officer who followed up previous documentation by publishing in December "Winning Ways", his action plan for dealing with MRSA and hospital-acquired infection. It is not the HPA's responsibility to set out how the NHS goes about preventing hospital-acquired infections.]

Dr Lewis: Surely, if my hon. Friend is right and the HPA's main function is surveillance, he is making a strong case that it has a lot more to do in its new form than it ever had to do in its old form if it is to carry out that function effectively.

[Mr Lansley: Yes, I am making that point, and that work has to be done in a way that ensures that the agency's responsibilities and those of the Department of Health are meshed together.]

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[Mr Peter Lilley: … Will [the Health Protection Agency], in its attempts to fulfil its function of preventing the spread of disease, have the power to detain people suspected of being infected? Will it have the power to distrain property thought to be carrying infection? Will it have the power to levy charges or impose fines on those who interfere with its attempts to restrict the spread of infection? Those are important issues. There could be arguments for giving a body such powers, but it would be unusual for the House to give them away without any restraint at all, without specifying in the Bill the circumstances in which they could be used and without any recognition by Ministers that such draconian powers were being conferred on a Government agency, albeit one acting at arm's length from the Government.]

Dr Lewis: My right hon. Friend has been in the House much longer than I have. In his long experience, has he ever come across a Bill that has given such an open-ended mandate to an agency in that fashion?

Mr Lilley: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I have cast my mind back to see if I can remember such a case, but I cannot. … When one thinks of the disparity between the Government's pursuit of what turned out to be illusory threats of biological warfare in the Middle East and the actual biological warfare being fought and, it would seem, lost in our hospital wards through dirty and unwashed hands, one cannot help feeling that there is a disproportionate failure to recognise the seriousness of the problem.

Dr Lewis: My right hon. Friend is most generous in giving way. One is tempted to comment on the paradox that he just raised by recalling the statement once made about a small number of deaths being a tragedy and a large number of deaths being a statistic. My right hon. Friend rightly points to basic failures such as not washing hands as being responsible for some deadly infections. Why, then, should we need a Health Protection Agency to put something right, when we all know what is wrong?

Mr Lilley: My hon. Friend makes another very good point. I hope that we do all know what is wrong, and I intend to investigate further the causes of this problem.

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Dr Lewis: Does my right hon. Friend feel that one of the reasons why less attention is given to MRSA infection in hospitals than it should is that the people most affected by it are elderly patients? If it carried off larger numbers of younger people, perhaps there would be a stronger lobby. Is it not a disgrace that our elderly people are coming to think of hospitals as places where, if they enter, they may not come out alive?

[Mr Lilley: My hon. Friend's critique is valid. It is true that less attention is paid to the problem than would be paid to it if the majority of the victims were not elderly. However, let us not conceal the fact that people in the prime of life are affected, too, including an increasing number of children. All ages will be at risk if we do not tackle the problem vigorously.]

[For the Speech to which this exchange relates, click here.]