A TROUBLED Hampshire health trust is on the brink of closing a specialist psychiatric ward providing acute care for some of its most vulnerable patients.

Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust is proposing to mothball a mental health unit in Antelope House, Southampton, meaning severely ill patients could be sent up to 35 miles away for care.

The organisation is blaming the temporary closure on chronic staff shortages caused by a difficulty in failing to recruit enough psychiatric staff to work there.

But health campaigners have branded the decision "shambolic", fearing it will cause major upheaval for patients and their families.

It comes just days after underfire chief executive Katrina Percy was told she will keep her job, despite repeated calls for her to step down, following a series of scandals hitting the Calmore-based organisation.

The trust wants to temporarily close its 10-bed Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) unit in Antelope House where patients most deemed at risk to themselves or others due to their more serious illnesses are cared for in a secure and low stimulus ward.

It is separate to the rest of the inpatient unit, which will remain open as normal.

The PICU should have around 50 staff, but the trust has struggled to recruit 25 new employees - a shortfall of half the workforce - meaning gaps are being plugged by agency staff.

This is despite the organisation offering a range of incentives including relocation packages, running recruitment events and offering introduction payments.

Daily Echo:

Katrina Percy has resisted intense pressure to resign as chief executive of Southern Health

Now the trust is proposing to close the unit for eight months until March next year and transfer patients elsewhere.

A trust spokeswoman stressed patients will be cared for within the county, but refused to determine where.

Another PICU unit is run in Parklands Hospital, Basingstoke - 35 miles away.

Dr Sara Ryan, whose son Connor Sparrowhawk drowned while unsupervised in a bathtub during in a seizure in Slade House in Headington, Oxfordshire, has branded the decision "outrageous".

She said: "It's going to be upheaval for patients and their families and the closure will mean increased pressure on other provisions. It's a shambles."

Mark Aspinall, a former governor who quit in the wake of the scandals also branded it "shambolic" and added: "People rely on this service and now there will be more uncertainty for patients and families."

Daily Echo: Connor Sparrowhawk died in Slade House in Headington in 2013

Southern Health was found to have neglected Connor Sparrowhawk, who died in a bathtub during a seizure

Southampton Healthwatch chairman Harry Dymond said it is "disappointing" and added everything must be done to ensure the best staff are employed for the job.

Liz Durrant, trust area manager for Southampton adult mental health services said "significant recruitment" and care improvements needed to be carried out while operating with reduced staff, adding: "We deeply regret having to make temporary changes which mean patients and their families need to travel further away for some of their care. However, we are taking this action based on our desire to do what is best for our service users, their carers and our staff - to improve people’s experience when using our services in the future.”

She added they would main close contact with the PICU team for a "safe transition" back to acute services as soon as possible.