A new health regulator will be given powers to close wards in the NHS and private hospitals as part of a crackdown on dangerous infections which have damaged patients' trust in the health service.
Regional health authorities will be ordered to pay for a "deep clean" of entire hospitals this year from their own budgets at a cost of £50m. Under plans unveiled yesterday at the Labour Party conference, Alan Johnson, the Health Secretary, announced that the new regulator, Ofcare, would have the power to close wards and fine hospital trusts who fail to respond to demands to rid the NHS of the two biggest killers, co-called "superbugs", MRSA and C.difficile. The new policy shows the Government is ready to take on David Cameron, the Tory leader, over his threatened "bare-knuckle fight" for the NHS. But ministers fear that hospital-acquired illnesses have undermined patients' faith in the NHS.
"We're going to make real progress against MRSA but the war against another infection, C.difficile, must be intensified," Mr Johnson said. "I want a regulator with the power to close, clean and then reopen wards if necessary."
In a second measure to restore support from nursing unions, Mr Johnson announced that NHS staff would be issued with personal safety alarms to protect them from attack by patients. The money will come from a £97m boost to the service's security budget. The move was immediately welcomed by the Royal College of Nursing, which had earlier angrily protested over a squeeze on public sector pay. The two proposals were part of a sustained effort by Mr Brown to repair the damage done to staff morale and patient confidence in the NHS by a year of budget cuts he ordered as Chancellor to end deficits in the health service.
Union protests were muted yesterday, partly by careful conference management by the party leadership. But Mr Johnson has gone out of his way to restore good relations with the health unions before the introduction of more health reforms. Mr Brown's plans for greater access to GPs will be outlined in an autumn White Paper on widening the role of pharmacies, which may include proposals for pharmacies to provide sexual health checks. There will also be an interim report by Professor Sir Ara Darzi, the surgeon brought into the Government by Mr Brown to review the NHS.
Mr Johnson said on BBC Radio that greater competition by private companies who can take over GP services would lead to more out- of-hours surgeries. Asked if that meant GPs would have to compete against each other, he said: "In a sense, that's true but I don't think it would work on the basis of, you know, Tesco versus Asda."
Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on health, accused Mr Johnson of "gimmickry and re-spun policy" and of failing to answer the fundamental question of where Mr Brown would take the NHS.
"He has not explained how more personalised care will be delivered or what the role of the private sector will be in delivering it," added Mr Lamb.