The UK Government must not ignore calls for action by those concerned with healthcare laundering any longer.

For some time both public and private healthcare launderers have, through their representative associations, been seeking intervention in the question of the processing of nurses’ and staff uniforms and for the revision of Health Service Guidelines on processing of “foul and infected” linen. While no direct link between either linen or uniforms and hospital acquired infections has been proved, both could have a bearing.

The Watt report, which recommended the processing of nurses’ uniforms by, or under the auspices of the NHS and that travelling to and from hospital in uniform should cease, was published in 2002, following investigation into an outbreak of salmonella. But three years later and despite growing concern about HAIs the Government still insists that it is a matter for individual trusts to decide.

Massive effort and huge investment are needed before a national policy could be introduced and enforced. The logistics of ensuring sufficient uniforms in place at the right time must be worked out. Nurses must have modern well-equipped changing rooms, in convenient locations on site, or the policy will not be practicable. So money will have to be spent upgrading and providing those rooms in sufficient numbers. Doubtless, it is partly the finance aspect that is causing hesitation, but can we afford to ignore any aspect of hospital hygiene?

Action on revising Health Service Guidelines seems similarly slow in arriving. The 1995 Guidelines, HSG95(18) are included in tender specifications, and are all that launderers in the health service have to go on. But they are out of date and out of line with practices in mainland Europe. The question of HAIs and “superbugs” has arisen since. Thorough investigation is needed both into the effectiveness of the washing temperatures and times recommended and into other possible methods of processing, disinfecting, and guarding against infection.

The need is urgent, the government should not delay longer.

Of course, it has taken action in one area, the patients’ environment which became the subject of the NHS Plan, launched in 2000. Areas such as food have already been tackled and now linen is coming under the scrutiny of Patient Environment Action Teams.

No-one would deny that such action is welcome. A pleasant, clean looking environment with good quality comfortable linen is important and makes the patient feel good. But it is not enough. Clinical hygiene cannot be judged by appearance, and so lay people and even ward staff cannot take responsibility for it. The processes that both linen and uniforms go through need to be examined and the time to do it is now.

Janet Taylor (