An internal policy review conducted by the Department of Health, which was leaked to the newspaper The Independent, show that government targets to cut NHS hospital waiting times are putting patients at increased risk of infection with the superbug MRSA.
The policy shows that there is a direct link between the number of patients in hospital - measured by bed occupancy - and MRSA rates. Ministers have denied there is a link.
The findings of the review are considered so sensitive that two attempts by The Independent to obtain the report under the Freedom of Information Act were rejected. Reducing bed occupancy in all NHS trusts to a maximum of 85 per cent would save 1,000 cases of MRSA a year, it says.
The latest figures for 2004-05 show that 88 NHS trusts in England, one fifth of the total, had occupancy rates over 90 per cent and almost half (45 per cent) had occupancy rates over 85 per cent.