Health Minister Michael McGimpsey was under pressure today to order a full public inquiry into a superbug outbreak after his Stormont health committee backed calls for one.
Members of the cross-party committee last night decided to call for the independent investigation as a way of restoring public confidence in the wake of dozens of deaths linked to Clostridium Difficile last year.
They are now to table a motion for the floor of the Assembly calling on Mr McGimpsey to change his mind after he ruled out a full public enquiry.
The committee, chaired by the DUP's Iris Robinson, came to the decision after hearing evidence from the chief executives of the five hospital Trusts yesterday afternoon. The bosses and the Department of Health's chief medical officer, Dr Michael McBride, were called to meet with the committee in light of public unease over the prevalence of hospital superbugs.
Provisional figures show that some 77 people died with C.Difficile in several hospitals last year. And the Northern Health and Social Care Trust is currently dealing with an outbreak of a particularly severe strain of the infection, never before seen in Northern Ireland, which has contributed to the deaths of 25 people since it was first detected last summer.
Chief executive of the Belfast Trust, William McKee, said that given the way in which C.Difficile develops - through antibiotic use in vulnerable and elderly patients who already carry the bug in their gut - it will never be completely eradicated in hospitals.
"We really are committed to do our very best to have no avoidable deaths, either from C.Difficile or any other hospital-acquired infection," he said.
He also highlighted that despite the "tragic" deaths, Northern Ireland's infection rates are significantly lower than international and UK standards.
"We can never reduce to zero the cases of C.Difficile. We really are up there with the best internationally," he added.
Mr McGimpsey recently ruled out a public inquiry into the deaths and said he had ordered a review by the health inspection body, the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA).
A number of MLAs expressed concerns about an RQIA investigation.
Sinn Fein's Caral Ni Chuilin said: "I don't think an RQIA investigation is going to achieve public confidence.
"We (at Sinn Fein) have talked people worried about sitting on a long waiting list out of going privately. We told them they have worked hard all their lives and deserve treatment.
"Now we have people who have waited on those lists, in pain, discomfort and distress, turning round when their appointment comes up and saying 'I'm not going into hospital now because I'm afraid of coming out in a box'."
Dr McBride said he believed that a full public enquiry would not deliver the speedy results needed "to save lives" in the battle to bring down C.Difficile rates. He was confident the review already planned into the outbreak was the best way to proceed.
Concluding the four-hour session, Mrs Robinson said a full independent investigation was the only way to allay public fears.