We are committed to maintaining the highest possible standards of cleanliness in Northern Ireland’s hospitals. A regional strategy, underpinned by rigorous independent monitoring, was launched in October 2005.
I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. May I draw his attention to the result of the inquest yesterday into the death of Mr. Brendan McDowell, who died after acquiring an infection in hospital? What is my hon. Friend doing to ensure that such a tragic event does not happen again?
As my hon. Friend has raised that issue, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in sending our sympathies to the family of Mr. McDowell, particularly his widow. We should pay particular heed to what she said yesterday after the inquest:
“They need to listen to the patient. They need to listen to their family. They need to put more hygiene practices into the wards.”
Of course, she is right. She and, indeed, all the people of Northern Ireland can be sure that we will not rest on the matter. We will pursue the Northern Ireland action plan for cleaner hospitals as well as the action plan on tackling health-care-acquired infections. We will take rigorous action to pursue the need for ever cleaner hospitals in Northern Ireland.
Mr. McDowell’s widow has been in contact with the office of my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson). Will the Minister advise us what checks have been conducted to ensure that hospital staff comply with barrier nursing and other protocols to reduce the spread of infection? In particular, are any such checks carried out without informing staff in advance?
Each trust has a responsibility to put in place an action plan to reduce infections, and it is for it to make sure that it monitors performance. In addition, there is mandatory surveillance for MRSA and other infections. People admitted to hospital are vulnerable, and of course there are infections, but we must make sure that one does not impact on the other. Every health trust has a responsibility, and the Department will continue to monitor that impact closely.
Given the sharp increase in cases of Clostridium difficile in Northern Ireland, and given that deaths from MRSA have risen fourfold in the past four years alone, is it not time that the Government gave infection-control staff the power to override managers and insist on closing wards and isolating patients when clinically necessary, even if that means breaching Government targets?
The hon. Gentleman has a long history of raising those issues. Although he presents a long-term picture he, like me, will be encouraged by the fact that MRSA infections in our hospitals show signs of decreasing as a result of the rigorous enforcement of strategies that have been put in place. If it is clinically necessary to close a ward, we will do so. It is important, however, to prevent infections in the first place, particularly through the ward sisters charter that I launched a few weeks ago, in which we make it quite clear that the ward sister is in charge. Whether someone is a consultant or a cleaner, a patient or a visitor, they have a responsibility to make sure that the hospital is kept as clean as possible.