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A new health watchdog could have the power to close English hospitals in 24 hours to fight against infections acquired in healthcare settings, the Department of Health has announced.
The Care Quality Commission will be able to shut down wards and hospitals; carry out inspections; and fine underperforming healthcare providers. The government will also give the regulator new powers that cover private hospitals and healthcare providers.
The health secretary, Alan Johnson, said, “Despite progress, tackling infection remains a challenge for the NHS. I am determined that we will take action where necessary to safeguard patients and ensure staff feel able to report concerns.”
Mr Johnson said that the regulator would be given “tougher powers” to inspect and close wards if necessary.
“NHS staff, such as matrons, nurses, and porters, who spend every day on the wards, need to feel able to report concerns to the new regulator,” he added.
Many of the new regulator's powers are already available to the existing regulators, but the government hopes tougher action will be taken by merging the responsibilities into one body.
The Care Quality Commission replaces the Commission for Social Care Inspection, the Healthcare Commission, and the Mental Health Act Commission.
The proposals are included in the Department of Health's response to a consultation launched in November 2006.
The regulatory framework is to be outlined in a health and social care bill, which will be introduced to parliament later this year.
However, Hamish Meldrum, chairman of the BMA, criticised the hasty abolition of the Healthcare Commission: “While we recognise some of the arguments for rationalising the process of regulation, the BMA is concerned that, only a few years after the Healthcare Commission was set up, it is about to be abolished to make way for yet another, new regulatory body.
“The NHS has been suffering from too much reorganisation and it appears that as soon as doctors and managers start getting used to one system, it's all change.”
Gill Morgan, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, warned that the new regulator must not signal a “year zero” approach that discards what has gone before.
“The annual health check will be only four years old when the Care Quality Commission is established,” she said.
Dr Morgan added that it was important for the public to see a “clear sense of continuity” to reassure them about how the NHS is monitored.
The chairman of the Healthcare Commission, Ian Kennedy, also cautioned against the new regulator being allowed to close NHS organisations.
“Even when things go wrong, it should ordinarily confine itself to making recommendations for others on the spot to manage, save in the last resort,” he added.