The government has given trusts some 'wiggle room' to maintain the new MRSA public service agreement beyond the target date of 2008.

The PSA target says: 'For MRSA the average annual number of MRSA bacteraemias for the period 2008-09 to 2010-11 should be less than half the 2003-04 figure.' It also says Clostridium difficile rates must be cut by 30 per cent.

The previous MRSA target - to cut rates in half by 2008 - was not a formal public service agreement but it was a high priority for the prime minister's delivery unit.

Earlier this year, HSJ revealed that the NHS was not on track to hit the April 2008 MRSA target (for more background, click here). A Department of Health memo set out plans to avoid negative publicity over missing the target. Options included delaying the deadline, which the department admitted would leave the government 'open to the accusation of fiddling'.

NHS Confederation policy director Nigel Edwards said the reference to 'average' rates in the new target did leave some 'wiggle room'.

'They have got to hit the previous target and having done that they have to sustain it. They have to get everyone down to 50 per cent but after that if they have a bit of bad luck it gives them a bit of wiggle room to get the average. What it says is: if you have a bad year you can make it up.'

He added that although the wording was 'a little strange', the DoH was trying to avoid being accused of setting more targets.

But shadow health minister Andrew Lansley said he believes it is an admission the target will not be met. 'Only in January this year the report in HSJ revealed internal documents which demonstrated that ministers were considering differing their target.

'In a debate we called in the House they made it clear that they would do no such thing and would put in place the measures necessary. Now it turns out they were never going to meet their target and now it's not their intention to meet the target.'

A DoH spokesperson said: 'For MRSA we are saying that the current progress should be sustained, rather than a rehash of an old target.' The use of 'average' referred to the way the target was measured.