This is the text of a speech Sir George made in the House of Commons. At the end of the debate, the Minister invited Sir George to a meeting to discuss the matter.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy). I agree that the debate has been good, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), who introduced it in his normal measured and rational way, set the right tone for a constructive exchange.
Along with other hon. Members who have spoken, I am, of course, anxious that my constituents should not acquire an infection when they go into hospital. Some signs are already apparent that fear of MRSA is beginning to affect people's willingness to have operations. I want to approach the subject not from the point of view of a patient with the infection, but from the point of view of a firm in my constituency that may have a solution, and I shall develop an argument that my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire touched on in his opening remarks.
I welcome what the Government have been doing and the progress that we have heard about in this debate. I want briefly to share the frustrations that both the company in my constituency and I have had in communicating with the Government and their agencies, and gently contrast the rhetoric of urgency and of rapid reviews with the leisurely progress that has been made since last December.
Bioquell is a firm based in my constituency. It is a quoted company with a market capitalisation of some £60 million, and it has invested heavily in research and development over the past five years. I have been round it, and I was impressed by the professionalism of the operation and the commitment of the staff. It has a long record of developing bio-decontamination technology, and last year the US Government selected it for priority research into anthrax decontamination. In the health care sector, it secured contracts to bio-decontaminate three hospitals in Singapore during last year's severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak. In July this year, it was awarded a contract by a French hospital to sterilise two intensive care units that were contaminated with a super-bug.
Progress at home has been tougher. On 3 December last year, the chief medical officer published "Winning Ways" in which he indicated as part of action area seven that the Department would set up a rapid review process to
"assess new procedures and products for which claims of effectiveness are made of their ability to prevent or control HAI".
On 15 December, I wrote to both the CMO and Lord Warner asking for a meeting to follow up the results obtained by a research team led by Professor Gary French, who is one of the UK's foremost authorities in the area—he is professor of microbiology at King's college London and head of the department of infection at St. Thomas' hospital just over the river. In a nutshell, his research shows that the hospital environment is heavily contaminated with MRSA.
In areas of the hospital where MRSA patients had been treated, 74 per cent. of swabs tested positive for MRSA.
More surprisingly, in a so-called non-MRSA ward, 43 per cent. of the bed frames were positive for MRSA. St Thomas' is probably a good proxy for all the tertiary hospitals in the UK.
Secondly, his research demonstrated that conventional cleaning does not work. In one experiment, 90 per cent. of 124 swabs were positive for MRSA before cleaning, but after cleaning the MRSA level reduced only to 66 per cent. The fact that conventional cleaning does not eradicate the superbug is highlighted elsewhere in scientific literature.
Thirdly, in another experiment the use of new technology reduced the level of MRSA dramatically. Prior to the deployment of the technology, the research team found that 74 per cent. of swabs were positive for MRSA. Use of the technology reduced that to just 1 per cent. That technology, which basically uses hydrogen peroxide vapour with high kinetic energy to decontaminate a room, equipment or furniture has been developed by the firm in my constituency.
The research that I have described was published in the "Journal of Hospital Infection" earlier this year, and it was referred to in the National Audit Office report. Lord Warner, to whom I wrote in December, neither agreed to my request for a meeting nor, indeed, answered my letter. Two months after I wrote, I got a reply from the chief medical officer that simply referred me to the rapid review process. However, that rapid review process was certainly not rapid. On May 24th, the CMO wrote to Bioquell to say that
"unfortunately, it is taking longer than anticipated to establish the rapid review process to assess new procedures and products which make claims of effectiveness against HAI. We will let you know when this has been agreed but we hope to start the evaluation before the end of the year"—
that is, one year after "Winning Ways" was announced.
That frustration is also reflected in the NAO report. One of its recommendations is that the Department should
"As a matter of urgency, define how the rapid review process of new procedures and products is to be implemented, and how the findings will be promulgated so that they can be translated into practice at trust level with minimum delay."
The rapid review process is now set up. It had its first meeting at the end of August, some nine months after "Winning Ways" was published. I hope that the Minister will agree on reflection that that is a disappointing response to a matter that we are told is urgent and right at the forefront of the Government's priorities.
We have heard a lot about cleaning in this debate. Of course, common sense dictates that cleaning is important, and I welcome the emphasis that the Government are placing on that aspect. Cleaning is a necessary but not a sufficient condition, and the Government are in danger of misleading themselves if they believe that improved cleaning alone will combat MRSA and the superbug—it will not. I am sure that if any of us were about to be operated on we would like to be treated in a room, ward or operating theatre that had been sterilised as well as cleaned.
There has been ground-breaking research in this country into superbug eradication, but the first hospital to put it into practice is in Paris. I hope that the Minister will understand that from the point of view of a company that genuinely believes that it has a contribution to make, the response is one that can lead only to frustration.
I want to conclude on a broader but related point. The Government constantly promote the benefits of the knowledge-based economy and urge us all to adapt accordingly. As the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) said, MRSA is a global problem that requires a knowledge-based solution. However, the Government should understand that in practice a British technology company has found it almost impossible to get any meaningful action from the Department of Health on testing and adopting its technology, although it clearly needs a domestic base to win export orders. The Department's document, "Towards Cleaner Hospitals and Lower Rates of Infection", which was published in July, says that it will
"bring the best expertise from abroad to tackle the worst problems at home".
But the best practice may already be in this country.
If the Government are really determined to drive forward their agenda on MRSA, I urge them to deal with the rapid review process with more rapidity than they have so far been able to apply to it and to get on with introducing this technology, when it has been tested, into hospitals with the biggest MRSA problem, then, subject to satisfactory tests, rolling it out. I hope that the Minister will make some commitment to faster progress on that particular aspect than we have had so far.