HEALTH chiefs have banned new admissions at a Hampshire hospital, sparking fears about its future.
NHS bosses have blamed staff shortages for the sudden decision not to admit patients to Hythe Hospital.
Now campaigners believe that the hopsital, which has already lost its minor injuries and maternity units, may be secretly earmarked for closure.
Hampshire Community Health Care (HCHC), which runs the complex, says no new patients will be accepted for at least three months.
Staff were told about the temporary closure of the 16-bed hospital during a hastily arranged meeting.
The hospital’s 20 nurses have been offered one-to-one meetings with managers to discuss their options within the next two weeks.
The move has angered campaigners who successfully fought off an attempt by health bosses to axe beds at Hythe and four other hospitals in the district five years ago.
The Daily Echo-backed Save Our Community Hospitals group was launched in 2005 and still holds regular meetings with senior health officials.
A spokesman said: “If it’s true that this step has been taken because of staffing level problems, it’s absolutely astonishing that it should be done in such a sudden and secretive way, with no hint or warning to anyone.
“Our meetings are attended by senior health officials and there hasn’t been the slightest suggestion of a problem at Hythe.
“Unless something huge has suddenly happened, the only conclusion one can reach is that they’ve acted in an underhanded way in the middle of an election campaign, when everyone’s attention is distracted. I do hope I’m wrong about this.”
The HCHC says the ban on new admissions is only temporary.
However, the decision has sparked fears for the hospital’s future following previous staff shortages and the consequent loss of key facilities on the site.
Last night Hythe councillors hit out at what they described as “cuts by stealth”.
County councillor Brian Dash said: “First we lost the minor injuries unit, then they took away the maternity unit and now they’re fiddling with the main hospital. It’s got to stop.”
Dave Smith, chairman of Hythe and Parish Council, was also scathing.
He said: “The hospital is Hythe and Dibden’s memorial to people killed in the two world wars and is highly valued by the local community. I hope the situation is resolved very quickly.”
HCHC said it had spent 18 months attempting to tackle a growing staff shortage at the complex.
A spokesman blamed “competition” from Southampton General Hospital for the lack of qualified nurses willing to work in Hythe.
Beds at the hospital will be closed when the eight existing patients are well enough to go home. People requiring rehabilitation will be taken to Lymington New Forest Hospital and Fordingbridge Hospital.
Asked why it was not possible to transfer nurses from other hospitals, the spokesman said there was no spare capacity.
She added: “We can deploy agency staff but they would not be employees of HCHC and may not have the right level of understanding of our policies, procedures and standards.”
Hythe Hospital in Beaulieu Road has 16 beds for elderly patients needing to undergo rehabilitation before returning home.
However, during the last few months four of those beds have remained closed due to staff shortages.
The medical centre next to the hospital, which is part of the same complex, is also used for outpatient clinics such as diabetes and rheumatology.
The Daily Echo understands these clinics will continue as normal for at least the next few months while the hospital is closed.
Hythe Hospital opened in 1922 as a memorial to local men killed in the First World War.