The number of people contracting potentially deadly E.coli infections has risen sharply, despite a Government pledge to wage “war on superbugs”.

Official figures show the number of infections have risen by more than a third since 2013.

Experts said shortages of nurses could be fuelling the trend, with rushed staff paying insufficient attention to infection control.

In 2016, then-health secretary Jeremy Hunt promised to halve so-called gram-negative bloodstream infections – two thirds of which are E. coli cases – by 2020.

But the figures show that since then, E. coli infections have actually increased by nearly 5,000 cases per year.

In 2018/19, 43,242 cases of E. coli infection were recorded – a 34 per cent rise from 32,309 cases six years before.

The figure is a 13 per cent increase since Mr Hunt pledged to crack down on the problem.

And overall rates, compared with the population, have risen by 29 per cent since 2012/13, from 60.4 cases per 100,000 people to 77.7 cases per 100,000.

“Superbug” versions of the bacteria, which are hard to treat because they are resistant to antibiotics, have also seen “consecutive increases” every year, a report found.

The reports, from Public Health England (PHE), show infections were most common in people over the age of 85 and around one in six cases took hold while the patient was in hospital.

Officials warned up to half of patients with E. coli infections had recently interacted with healthcare workers, including in care homes.

E. coli (or Escherichia coli) bacteria are common and mostly live harmlessly in the bowel but can cause infections like food poisoning or cystitis.

Some strains produce toxins which can trigger serious illness if they get into the bloodstream, potentially causing kidney failure or death.

Infections can be spread through contact with contaminated food or water, unhygienic facilities or a lack of personal hygiene.

The PHE report says: “In order to reduce infection rates further, control efforts in the hospital setting must be maintained or strengthened, while increasing focus on interventions in the community and the interface between hospital and community infection control teams improved.”

In his November 2016 announcement, Mr Hunt revealed plans to “dramatically reduce” infections in the NHS to save lives, saying: “Like a many-headed hydra the curse of dangerous infections comes back to haunt us in different ways despite our progress since 2010.”

At the time, E. coli infections killed more than 5,500 patients a year and cost the NHS around £2billion annually.

Prof Hugh Pennington, Emeritus professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen, said most hospital-acquired infections entered the bloodstream through intravenous (IV) lines – tubes used to carry medicines or fluids into the body – which needed to be carefully looked after to prevent infection.

He said shortages of nurses could be fuelling the problem, with too few staff to attend to increasingly unwell elderly patients.

“Common sense says that the fewer nurses you have per patient the more likely it is that something like an IV line will not be as well looked after as it should be,” he said.

The Government has pledged to increase nursing numbers by 50,000, amid warnings of widespread shortages.

In November a survey of more than 8,000 nurses found six in ten felt too busy to provide the level of care to patient that they want to give.

The figure is up from 43 per cent, when the Royal College of Nursing asked the question a decade ago.

Prof Mark Enright, professor of medical microbiology at Manchester Metropolitan University, said Mr Hunt’s target had been “ambitious”.

“Failure to meet these targets could be due to a lack of effective social care in the elderly and inappropriate antibiotic prescribing both in and out of hospital,” he said.

Some E. coli bacteria have evolved to become “superbugs” which are resistant to at least two forms of commonly-used antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance has been named by the World Health Organisation as one of the biggest threats to global health.

Bacteria in up to one in seven E. coli cases recorded in 2018 were resistant to a combination of two common antibiotics, a separate PHE report found.

And 0.04 per cent – around a dozen cases – were resistant to all four known drugs to treat the infection.

“While this proportion is small, patients who fall into this category will have very limited treatment options available,” the report warns.

Dr Susan Hopkins, deputy director, national infection service, at PHE, said:“Our data monitoring in support of the UK’s National Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance shows cases of MRSA and C. difficile bloodstream infections are low and cases of E.coli infections have remained stable in the most recent year.

“Inappropriate GP prescribing has reduced, but there can be no complacency and we continue to support the NHS and the government’s effort to cut gram negative infections.”

By Laura Donnelly, Health Editor Rosie Taylor

Published 29. December 2019  telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/12/29