Page last updated at 01:32 GMT, Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Branson issues NHS infection call

By Adam Brimelow
BBC News health correspondent

Richard Branson

Sir Richard Branson has accused politicians of "tinkering" with infection control in hospitals.

The recently appointed vice-president of the Patients Association wants all hospital staff to be screened for MRSA, and treated immediately if infected.

He says any disruption caused would be better than the pain, misery and deaths caused by avoidable infections.

However, NHS experts argued they had made significant progress in tackling the problem.

And Professor Mark Enright, an MRSA expert, said the policy could make sense, but would be expensive to implement.

Sir Richard has also called for managers who fail to enforce patient safety standards to be sacked.

Across the UK MRSA rates are falling, but Sir Richard wants to see a much tougher line.

He said: "There have been some improvements, but the facts speak for themselves - and the facts are still horrific.

"It feels like they have tinkered with the problem rather than really got to the heart of the problem. The hospitals are there to cure people. They are not there to kill people."

Hospitals are there to cure people - they are not to kill people
Sir Richard Branson

In the UK, as in other developed countries, it is estimated that one in 10 patients admitted to hospitals will suffer harm as a result of something going wrong.

Learning from industry

Sir Richard says the health service could learn a lot from the airline and rail industries on how to avoid mistakes.

"In the airline industry if we had that kind of track record we would have been grounded years ago," he said.

"In the airline industry if there is an adverse event that information is sent out to every airline in the world.

"And every airline makes absolutely certain that that adverse event doesn't happen twice."

Working with the Patients' Association, Sir Richard is organising an international conference in the new year to examine what works best in infection control and patient safety. He will make recommendations to the government.

But he is already convinced that all hospital staff, including surgeons, nurses and cleaners, should be screened and treated if they are found to be carrying MRSA.

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He said: "You don't necessarily have to ask them to leave the hospital while they are being treated.

"They can just not have any contact with patients for those two weeks while their treatment is taking place, and then they can come back and have contact with patients.

"That is far better than having people dying from unnecessary diseases, and all the misery and pain that that causes, and the cost to the NHS which is enormous."

Mixed response

Derek Butler, chairman of the campaign group MRSA Action UK, agreed that a tougher line was needed.

He also called for restrictions on the number of people visiting patients in hospital.

"Fighting health care infections has to be an all or nothing affair. There can be no halfway house."

But Professor Enright, from London's Imperial College, said the policy would prove to be expensive.

This proposal will cost a great deal of money and risk further reductions in the number of health professionals available to treat patients
British Medical Association

He said: "It could be successful, but it would be very costly because you would have to employ extra staff.

"There is no slack in the NHS to do this. If you did a cost-benefit analysis there are possibly better ways of spending the money."

A spokesman for The British Medical Association warned that running an airline was not the same as running a health service.

He said: "This proposal will cost a great deal of money and risk further reductions in the number of health professionals available to treat patients at a time when we are critically short of staff and beds."

Nigel Edwards, of the NHS Confederation, which represents over 95% of NHS organisations, said: "The NHS has made huge progress in reducing MRSA by 50% and C. diff rates are going down.

HAVE YOUR SAY
The proposals put forward by Richard Branson are sensible and necessary
Anders Roberts, UK
"We are not convinced that screening all staff is a proportionate response to bringing rates down further."

A spokesman for the Department of Health in England said: "The government is taking tough actions in the fight against infections.

"These include stringent hand-washing across the NHS, doubling the number of matrons and giving them greater powers to enforce cleanliness standards, and screening admitted patients for MRSA.

"These are clearly making an impact as we have halved MRSA infections since 2003/04 and C. difficile infections are down 35% on the same quarter last year."

Sir Richard also called for more information for patients on infection rates, and a tougher policy on managers at failing trusts.

He said: "The patient should have the right to know the track record not only of the hospitals, but the rate on wards, on departments, on surgeons, on clinicians.

"That shouldn't be something which is hidden.

"And I also think if managers of hospitals are not obeying the rules that have been set by the NHS, those managers should be replaced."

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