Matrons will have new powers to close infected hospital wards under Conservative plans to fight superbugs.
Michael Howard says matrons would be able to close infected wards
Tory leader Michael Howard, setting out his party's £52m ten-point action plan to tackle MRSA, said matrons would be put in charge of hospital cleaning.
The government's "obsession with targets" was risking lives, he said.
Labour has pledged to cut MRSA rates and says there are already thousands of matrons on the wards. The Lib Dems dismissed Tory plans as "unbelievable".
Mr Howard accused Prime Minister Tony Blair of prioritising Labour health targets over the battle to prevent hospital-acquired infections.
"Patients are dying because of Mr Blair's targets," he said, speaking after a visit to a hospital in Tooting, south London.
"It is a fact that doctors and nurses are prevented from closing wards they know to be infected with the superbug because of Whitehall targets."
Mr Howard, whose mother-in-law died from a hospital-acquired infection three years ago, said cleaning up hospitals was a "personal" issue for him.
"Florence Nightingale once said that the very first requirement in hospital is that it should do the sick no harm," he said.
"Under Mr Blair our hospitals are failing in that most basic duty. Let's be clear - MRSA is avoidable."
Mr Howard said the Tories would give matrons the power to close wards and operating theatres if they knew they were infected with superbugs.
"We'll put matron back where she belongs - in charge," he said.
"We'll also require hospitals to publish their infection levels so that patients know which hospitals are the cleanest, and we'll give them the right to choose to be treated in those hospitals.
"There is nothing inevitable about the superbug crisis."
Hospital-acquired infections cost the NHS £1bn annually
The National Audit Office estimates infections such as MRSA (methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus) kill 5,000 people each year.
The problem is estimated to cost the NHS £1bn annually.
Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said the Tories would provide £52m in the current and next financial year to support infection control.
He said extra cash for frontline services would come from cuts to unnecessary bureaucracy.
Under the Tories' 10-point plan, matrons will have the power to demand wards are cleaned again if judged unacceptable and payment could be withheld unless standards are met.
It would also mean all wards had access to 24-hour cleaning.
Health Secretary John Reid accused Mr Howard of wanting to "exploit" the issue of hospital cleanliness so he could "run down" the NHS and then cut its funding.
He said Labour had brought in matrons four years ago, and MRSA levels were now beginning to fall.
"Six months ago I said the first thing we wanted to do is stop the growth. The second is to start the reduction. We've achieved both of those," Mr Reid said.
"The third is to have a 50% reduction within three years. We are on target for that."
Liberal Democrat health spokesman Paul Burstow said the Tories were right to highlight MRSA but rejected their plans as "simply unfair, uncosted and unbelievable"
He said MRSA levels had risen from 1992 to 1997, when the Tories were in power.