There has been dramatic change in antibiotic use in English hospitals. Data from 2004 and 2009 show that the focus on reducing fluoroquinolone and second- and third-generation cephalosporin use seems to have been heeded in NHS secondary care, and has been associated with a substantial decline in hospital Clostridium difficile rates. However, there has been a substantial increase in use of co-amoxiclav, carbapenems and piperacillin/tazobactam. In primary care, antibiotic prescribing fell markedly from 1995 to 2000, but has since risen steadily to levels seen in the early 1990s. There remains a 2-fold variation in antimicrobial prescribing among English General Practices. In 2010, the NHS Atlas of Variation documented a 3-fold variation in the prescription of quinolones and an 18-fold variation in cephalosporins by Primary Care Trusts across England. There is a clear need to improve antimicrobial prescribing. This paper describes the development of new antimicrobial stewardship programmes for primary care and hospitals by the Department of Health's Advisory Committee on Antimicrobial Resistance and Healthcare Associated Infection: Antimicrobial Stewardship in Primary Care Initiative. The secondary care programme promotes the rapid prescription of the right antibiotic at the right dose at the right time, followed by active review for all patients still on antibiotics 48 h after admission. The five options available are to stop, switch to oral, continue and review again, change (if possible to a narrower spectrum) or move to outpatient parenteral antibiotic therapy. A range of audit and outcome tools has been developed, but to maintain optimal antimicrobial usage, monitoring of local and national quantitative and qualitative data on prescribing and consumption is required, linked to the development of key performance indicators in primary, secondary and tertiary care.