The UK's hospitals have half the number of cleaners they had 20 years ago, a shocking decline which is being linked to the huge rise in the number of deadly superbug infections in the tax-funded National Health Service (NHS).
The scale of the exodus of cleaning staff, revealed for the first time yesterday, gives firm backing to the widespread belief that the wards have become dirtier and less safe. The figures, compiled by UNISON, the UK's largest union after asking a parliamentary question, showed that there were 55,000 hospital cleaners, either NHS employees or people working in the hospitals for private cleaning contractors last year. In 1984, there were more than 100,000.
UNISON demanded on Saturday night that the British Health Secretary, John Reid, urgently review the numbers of cleaners needed. The union's general secretary, Dave Prentis, who has spoken about his own brush with death after contracting the bug MRSA, said: "It is wrong that people have to try to recover from operations in these conditions, that visitors have to come into them, and staff have to work in these conditions. You wouldn't tolerate these levels of dirt in your own home, so why do we allow them in hospitals?"
He said that since the introduction of market testing for cleaning services in hospitals in 1983, controlling infections had become more difficult. Staff cuts have been driven by contractors squeezing costs to boost profits and gain efficiencies, by reducing numbers, hours and cutting wages.
The figures were greeted with alarm last night by doctors and patients' groups. Claire Rayner, president of the Patients' Association who herself contracted MRSA following a knee operation, said: "These figures are terrifying. Cleaners have left because they are often blamed for what has gone wrong when it's not their fault, they feel demoralized and still they are paid a very low wage."
Dr Paul Grime, the British Medical Association's representative on hospital hygiene, said: "A 50 percent drop in the number of cleaners seems quite high to us. There are lots of factors behind MRSA but cleaning is a very important one."
There is growing concern about how a drop in hygiene standards has contributed to the rise of MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, which was contracted by 100,000 people last year in hospitals and the cause of about 5,000 deaths a year in Britain. Rates of the bug are thought to have trebled in the last 10 years.
A spokesman for Reid said the decline in the number of cleaners was not disputed, but that Department of Health figures showed that in 1986 there were 88,000 cleaners. He also said the size of the NHS estate had reduced by 20 percent in the past two decades -- therefore there was less physical space to clean.
MRSA Support, a patient group, said their own tests showed that the superbug was surviving cleaning regimes.
Official figures released last month showed that fewer than half of hospitals had good levels of cleanliness. Only half of the 1,184 hospitals in England had "acceptable levels," while 27 were considered poor or unacceptable.
The figures came out after a parliamentary question asked by MP Judy Mallaber to the health minister Lord Warner. In a written response he said the latest available figure for staff who undertake cleaning in the NHS was 55,000 for 2003-2004.