Patients at risk of MRSA infection

Stricter superbug controls were demanded last night after it emerged that Norfolk's main hospitals were still allowing nurses to wear their uniforms outside work.

Stricter superbug controls were demanded last night after it emerged that Norfolk's main hospitals were still allowing nurses to wear their uniforms outside work.

Health chiefs spoke of their concern that the county's acute hospitals are putting patients at risk of potentially life-threatening illnesses by not forcing staff to change their clothing after a shift.

The increased demand on beds has also raised fears about a future rise in healthcare-acquired infections - despite a dramatic cut in MRSA and C difficile rates in Norfolk and Waveney over the last year.

The Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital yesterday announced a drop of more than 50pc in MRSA and C-diff cases.

But members of Norfolk's health scrutiny panel have raised concerns about the number of hospital staff wearing uniforms outside of work and high bed occupancy rates.

MRSA Action UK called on the government earlier this year to make it compulsory for nurses to change out of their uniforms after finishing work to help stamp out the deadly infections. But the Department of Health has left it to individual NHS trusts to decide their own uniform policy.

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Officials from Norfolk's three acute hospitals currently allow nurses to wear uniforms when travelling to and from work, but encourage them to wear a long coat over their work clothes and urge them not to go shopping in their uniforms.

It has also emerged that the James Paget University Hospital at Gorleston and some community hospitals do not even have a place for staff to store uniforms.

Judy Ames, lead infection control nurse at NHS Norfolk, said she shared people's concerns about staff wearing uniforms outside work, including N&N staff wearing them on the bus.

She said: “I do get frustrated when I see nurses in uniform in commercial premises. If you see it, I would say report it.”

Jonathan Williams, assistant director of health intelligence at NHS Norfolk, said there was no conclusive evidence to suggest banning staff from wearing a uniform outside of work would limit the spread of infection.

“Ideally we would encourage staff to change into their uniforms at work but appreciate this is not always possible where space for changing, storage and laundry facilities is limited,” he said.

Derek Butler, chairman of MRSA Action UK, said the government advice for patients with MRSA was to change their clothing daily but there was conflicting advice for hospital staff.

“We are not satisfied that every effort is being made to ensure patient safety with regard to the lax policy on the wearing of uniforms in the public domain,” he said.

But Andrew Stronach, for the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, said some of the foundation trust's staff worked in the community and had to wear their uniforms in public.

“Our infection rates are the lowest in the county and nurses wearing uniforms in public are not a huge risk. From a microbiological view, there is not a huge body of evidence to say uniforms are a huge source of transmission. Hand hygiene is the key,” he said.

Noel Scanlon, chief nurse and chief executive of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, King's Lynn, said: “The public perception is that it is not acceptable to see someone wearing a nurse's uniform outside work. Our policy is strongly to discourage nurses from wearing uniform outside the premises and they should not enter shops and commercial premises with their uniform on.”

At the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, there were 15 cases of MRSA and 139 cases of C difficile in 2008-9 - a record low and down from 33 and 326 the year before.

At the QEH, there were 8 cases of MRSA - the same as the year before - and 98 of C diff - down from 227 the year before.

The JPH recorded 10 cases of MRSA and 90-100 of C diff, down from 31 and 154.

A Department of Health spokesman said: “It is the responsibility of each NHS Trust to have its own policy about the wearing of uniforms. Trusts are expected to keep their policies in respect of uniforms and workwear under review.”