Patients ‘at risk’ as cash to fight superbugs cut

A cleaner uses disinfectant to make sure there is no chance of infection. Picture: PA
A cleaner uses disinfectant to make sure there is no chance of infection. Picture: PA
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FUNDING to combat hospital superbugs is to be slashed by £10 million despite a probe revealing several Lothian departments are falling short in the fight against infection.

The Evening News revealed this week that an NHS Lothian internal audit had shown that in some departments compliance with strict handwashing rules had dropped as low as 59 per cent while the health board was also failing with MRSA screening in some key areas.

Yet the Scottish Government revealed in its draft budget that funding for its clean hospitals and MRSA screening programme is to be cut by more than a third nationally, from £28.4m to £18.5m next year.

Questioned over the issue at First Minister’s Questions yesterday, Alex Salmond pointed to the government’s achievements in reducing healthcare associated infections (HAIs).

But opposition MSPs hit out at the huge cut and believe it signals complacency at a time that there was still far more to be done to tackle viruses and superbugs across the NHS. Last week, two Lothian hospital wards were shut due to norovirus, a month before the season traditionally starts.

Lothians Labour MSP and shadow health secretary Neil Findlay said: “Only this week, serious issues around infection control in NHS Lothian have been highlighted. This seems like a very odd time to be cutting such essential funding.

“This sends out completely the wrong message to the public as it appears the government is saying the problem has been fixed so they don’t have to put any more money in to it, but the evidence suggests that is far from the case.” The NHS Lothian audit, completed in June, warned that while nurses were required to complete risk assessments for MRSA for most patients admitted to hospital, they had not been done in nearly half of cases in the first three months of 2013. Where swab-based tests for MRSA would have been expected, they were not completed 25 per cent of the time in the same period.

In the last financial year, when the government withdrew specific funding for MRSA surveillance, it contributed to lower levels of monitoring, according to the audit.

In one clinical area – the orthopaedic pre-admission clinic at the Royal Infirmary – the probe found strict hand hygiene procedures were being followed just 59 per cent of the time with 20 areas falling below 90 per cent.

Senior MSP and Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw branded the cut “astonishing” and said the NHS Lothian audit had proved the war against superbugs was a long way from being won.

He added: “The health budget is protected, so the SNP cannot hide behind the austerity argument. We’ve seen in recent years the chaos infections like norovirus can bring to hospital wards, and that looks set to worsen this year. Quite why investment to tackle this has been so radically reduced is beyond me.”

Health Secretary Alex Neil said initiatives such as the MRSA screening programme had required substantial start-up investment and the reduced expenditure reflected the fact that they were now “embedded” in health board activities.

He also said they were “proactively engaged in identifying fresh interventions to tackle emerging threats including antimicrobial resistance”.