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Warning that nurse shortages and crowded wards 'risk reversing infection prevention progress'

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Crowded NHS hospitals with too few nurses are increasing the risk of bacteria outbreaks and threatening to reverse the progress made by infection control teams in the past 20 years, a charity has warned.

Antibiotic Research UK said the current high rates of bed occupancy at hospitals in the NHS made the spread of bacterial infections more likely.

“Patients are also being robbed of their best eyes and ears when it comes to cleanliness”

Colin Garner

In addition, it warned staff shortages meant time-pressed nurses may be too busy to spot inadequate levels of cleanliness.

The charity stressed that infection control teams had worked hard since the early 2000s to educate staff about the importance of cleanliness.

It also noted the NHS’s recent commitment to reducing gram-negative infections, such as E. coli, klebsiella and pseudomonas bloodstream infections, by 50% by 2021.

But the charity’s chief executive, Professor Colin Garner, warned previous work to reduce infection risk was being undone by “a dangerous round of cuts that are playing dice with patient safety”.

“I have even heard of cases where administrative staff were being asked to help clean wards”

Colin Garner

Professor Garner said: “Even with the winter crisis and the recent cold snap subsiding, hospital trusts are reporting cases of bed-blocking and overlong stays, and close proximity to other patients enables superbugs to attack.

“Patients are also being robbed of their best eyes and ears when it comes to cleanliness,” he warned.

A recent survey by the Royal College of Nursing found the majority of nurses were too busy to provide the care that they would want to, highlighted Professor Garner.

“There is evidence too that open drains and sinks are still being found in hospitals and I have even heard of cases where administrative staff were being asked to help clean wards,” he said. “This all adds up to a deadly cocktail, which puts patient and visitor safety at mortal peril.”

The charity said it was now appealing to patients and visitors to report incidents of inadequate cleaning that time-stretched nurses may not spot. It said it was increasingly important to stay vigilant due to the growing threat of antibiotic resistance.

“Antibiotic resistance is potentially the biggest health problem facing humankind. If not addressed, we could see routine operations cancelled for fear of infection and something as simple as a dirty scratch becoming fatal, said Professor Garner.

“We need government, medical research organisations, the pharmaceutical industry and the public to work together to develop new but effective medications, fast. And while we wait for that to happen, we must do everything in our power to prevent the spread of bacterial infections – especially in our hospitals,” he added.

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