A sharp rise in the number of deaths from the Clostridium difficile (C. diff) superbug has prompted an angry reaction from opposition parties.
The Conservatives described the increase as "shocking" while the Liberal Democrats expressed frustration over the government's allegedly slow response to the problem.
The Department of Health (DoH) said it believed improvements in reporting methods were behind the increase, however.
Today's figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveal the number of death certificates which mentioned C. diff grew by 72 per cent from 2005 to 2006, a dramatic rise far exceeding previous increases in the superbug.
Of these 6,480 55 per cent said C. diff was the underlying cause of death, the ONS said. Figures for MRSA also rose in 2006 but ended the accelerating increases seen in previous years.
Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said the overall scale of infection in Britain's hospitals was "unacceptable".
"The need for a comprehensive infection control strategy, including improved anti-biotic prescribing and access to isolation facilities, hand hygiene and cleanliness is paramount," he commented.
Lib Dem health spokesperson Norman Lamb said the government should have acted sooner to curb the rise in infection rates.
"Ministers have promised measures that are untested and have been dismissed by experts as gimmicks," he said.
"Recent successes in keeping infection rates down are down to the hard work of NHS staff, who are up against enormous pressure to hit targets while keeping their wards infection-free."
Last year the government announced a range of strategies to reduce healthcare associated infections (HCAIs), chief microbiologist Professor Brian Duerden said.
These include a 'deep clean' of all hospitals by spring 2008, a ban on long-sleeved white coats, guidance on hand-washing and handing responsibility for day-to-day cleanliness back with matrons.
"We are investing an extra £270 million per year by 2010/11 to fight infections which will pay for more specialist staff, including antimicrobial pharmacists, and MRSA screening for all patients," he said.
Prof Duerden said the government had asked hospitals to record HCAI-related deaths more accurately in July 2005, suggesting the increase may not reflect a real rise in HCAIs.
He added: "These statistics from 2006 show that this move has worked and our figures are now in line with other developed countries."