The health secretary has defended the government’s targets for the NHS in the wake of failings at several hospitals.

Andy Burnham told the Commons the best hospitals were providing “high quality, safe care” as well as meeting performance targets, such as seeing accident and emergency patients within four hours.

He was responding to criticisms from the Tories that clinical priorities were being “distorted” by targets, with waiting times put above patient care.

Mr Burnham said patient safety was his “highest priority” as he made a statement to MPs following revelations about high death rates at Colchester Hospital University Foundation Trust and poor hygiene and standards of care at Basildon and Thurrock University Hospitals Foundation Trust.

A report by Dr Foster Intelligence rated a dozen hospitals as “significantly underperforming”, despite nine of them being rated good or excellent by official regulator the Care Quality Commission.

Seven hospitals were also found to have considerably higher mortality rates for the past five years.

Andy Burnham said “patient safety is our overriding concern” and “there is never any room for complacency”.

He added: “Patient safety must be the subject of a continuous process of improvement.

“However, there is considerable variation in standards across the NHS from one hospital to another and, in some cases, it is unacceptably wide.”

Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said: “It is not good enough for the secretary of state to order the Care Quality Commission to see if other trusts require intervention in light of the Basildon and Thurrock investigation.”