Every hospital will have a director of infection control in a bid to halt increasing rates of drug resistant "superbugs", say ministers.
Superbug rates are rising
The government's "action plan" will give this senior manager the power to enforce strict rules on hygiene.
Hospital-acquired infections cost the NHS an estimated £1 billion a year, and kill thousands of patients.
Figures released on Friday reveal some hospitals have far higher MRSA "superbug" infection rates than others.
The government is introducing a raft of measures designed to boost hygiene standards in hospitals.
The new infection control director will run teams whose role is to track down potential sources of infection.
They are to be encouraged to talk to every staff member to make sure they understand the importance of handwashing - the main way of preventing infections.
The government has also commissioned extra research into hospital infections.
Health secretary John Reid said that the NHS was not doing as well as it should in the fight against infections.
MRSA rates: Worst five hospitals
Weston Area Health: 0.30
North Middlesex Hospital: 0.30
Ealing Hospital: 0.29
Barnet and Chase Farm: 0.28
West Middlesex University: 0.27
Cases per 1,000 "bed days"
He said: "Some of the ways of tackling this problem are the old-fashioned ways. From the top-down, we need hygiene rules enforced from director level.
"There should be teams going round hospitals, looking at the million little ways in which you can transfer bugs from one to another."
Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, chief medical officer for England, said: "If some parts of the NHS can do it, then why can't everywhere do it?
"We have perhaps been a little bit too gentle on health care infection in the past, and it is now no more Mr Nice Guy."
Hospitals are breeding grounds for bacterial infections - filled with weakened patients, many with open wounds or connected to catheters.
As many as 100,000 people a year catch an infection during their stay in an NHS hospital.
Over-reliance on antibiotics over the past few decades has encouraged the development of bacteria which have grown resistant to all but a few drugs.
A National Audit Office report in 2000 cited poor hygiene standards as a key factor in the high number of infections.
Not only had cleaning standards fallen in some hospitals, but too little money was being spent on infection control staff, and despite their training, doctors and nurses were paying scant regard to even simple things such as handwashing between patients.
A report from the think-tank the Centre for Policy Studies released this week also highlighted anecdotal accounts of filthy conditions in UK hospitals.
Professor Hugh Pennington, a bacteriologist at Aberdeen University, told BBC News that by taking appropriate action the size of the problem could be reduced by up to 90%.
He said: "This is not rocket science. We need to change people's behaviour.
"We know that people don't wash their hands when they should which is one of the absolutely crucial measures about controlling bugs like MRSI.
"We need to have a really strong blitz on this bug. Other countries have done it and are succeeding."
But Mr Reid said the problem could be down to any number of factors such as the increased use of antibiotics and new technology which is more "intrusive" such as catheters and intravenous drips.
However, rates of hospital infection are higher in the UK than in many other European countries, even though they use the same methods.
Figures released on Friday show that some similar hospitals have widely differing rates of the "superbug" MRSA.
There is almost an eightfold difference in rates between best and worst in ranking tables, although ministers say their aim is not to "name and shame" hospitals.
However, opposition politicians pointed out that 15 out of the 20 "worst" trusts for MRSA rates had been rated "green" for hygiene in recent government ratings.
Conservative shadow health secretary Tim Yeo said: "What is puzzling is how the Government has tried to hide the problem from the public in the past. These figures undermine the credibility of the Department of Health's ratings system. The system is ludicrous and should be scrapped."
Liberal Democrat Health Spokesman Paul Burstow said the measures offered a "false sense of security".
He said: "The Government is losing the fight against infection in the NHS.
MRSA rates: Best five hospitals
York Health Services Trust: 0.04
Peterborough Hospitals: 0.05
Stockport NHS Trust: 0.05
Southport and Ormskirk: 0.06
Airedale NHS Trust: 0.06
Cases per 1,000 "bed days"
"Ministers have failed to give the NHS the tools it needs to combat the spread of infection. Appointing a Director of Hygiene misses the point.
"Responsibility for controlling infection must be at the front-line and there must be zero tolerance on staff hygiene.
"Hand washing is not a luxury and workload is not an excuse for poor hygiene habits."
The National Audit Office report highlighted many trusts which did not have proper infection control policies - some did not even promote handwashing by staff.
Christine Perry, the chairman of the Infection Control Nurses Association, said that while some areas still needed to improve, much had been achieved in the three years since.
She told BBC News Online: "We are still very concerned about antimicrobial resistance - good infection control is key to preventing the spread of these organisms."
Hospital infection facts
One in 11 hospital patients has caught an infection
They cost the NHS up to £1 billion a year
The elderly and very young are most vulnerable
Hospital stays can be prolonged by days, weeks or months
She said that even gaining control of simple things - like the ability to change to a different brand of paper towel - could make a difference.
"It's all about getting a culture of infection control within a hospital - changing behaviour and standards."
She said that people had become complacent in the 1960s and 1970s because of the wider availability of antibiotics - but that this safety net was now disappearing.