IT WAS the £25million psychiatric hospital which opened to a huge fanfare.

Antelope House was seen as a new dawn in improving care for mental health patients when it opened its doors in Southampton.

But six years on, the pioneering centre at the Royal South Hants Hospital has been dealt a major blow.

Health bosses announced plans this week to temporarily shut a specialist mental health unit caring for some of its most vulnerable patients.

As the Daily Echo has reported, Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust is temporarily closing the centre’s 10-bed Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) for eight months because of chronic staff shortages.

Now most patients needing PICU services will be transferred 80 miles away to Huntercombe Hospital in Roehampton, south west London.

The rest of Antelope House will remain open as normal and the trust has pledged that PICU patients will be sent to nearer centres if beds are available such as Parklands Hospital, Basingstoke.

The organisation is blaming the temporary closure on chronic staff shortages caused by a recruitment failure.

Health campaigners branded the decision “shambolic”, fearing it will cause major upheaval for patients and their families.

However health unions have backed the closure saying it is required to protect patient safety. They say the staffing problems are part of a wider mental health recruitment crisis within the NHS.

Antelope House opened in 2010 to replace the former Department of Psychiatry.

The 60-bed complex includes high dependency beds, with all rooms containing en suite facilities and there is also a gym, activity areas, internal courtyard and gardens.

The Antelope House PICU cares for patients most deemed at risk to themselves or others due to their more serious illness and are cared for in a secure and low stimulus ward.

The PICU should have around 50 staff, but the trust has struggled to recruit half that number 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: Antelope House

Now the trust is proposing to close the unit until March next year.

The PICU is now closed to new patients with remaining patients on the unit due to be transferred shortly.

But Di Francis, a trade union official for the Royal College of Nursing, said the staffing crisis is a nationwide problem.

She said: “Nurse recruitment is difficult in this area because the cost of living and housing is so expensive in the South.

"It isn’t just a problem with Antelope House - there is a shortage in general nursing and it is even worse in mental health.

"There are nurses in the North who aren’t going to come to the South because it is so expensive.

“You can’t criticise the trust for closing it. If they are not able to staff it they can’t run it safely and they have no alternative but to close it.

"It isn’t ideal - but safety is the first priority. It is what they needed to do.”

She said mental health nurses were harder to recruit from abroad than general nurses due to differences in training programmes in other countries.

She urged the government to boost nurse training and student nursing bursaries, adding: “There needs to be investment in training nurses for the future and to attract more people into the profession.”

But a 63-year-old father whose 30-year-old son from Southampton has been transferred to Huntercombe said he was “totally distressed” at the decision saying he was only contacted after his son was moved.

Daily Echo:

The father, who wanted to remain anonymous, told the Echo: “I feel like he’s been let down and I’ve been let down. It’s all about his welfare and continuity of care.

“Who is going to pay the increased costs for me to go to London and the costs if I have to take time off work and the amount of effort I have had to put in to manage this situation?”

Harry Dymond, chairman of Southampton Healthwatch, said he was “disappointed” at the closure.

He added: “It is incredibly regrettable but if they cannot recruit staff at Antelope House then I understand the decision to find an alternative. I would rather patients have safe care.”

A trust spokeswoman said: “While the temporary ward closure is in place, patients required a PICU bed will be treated at Huntercombe Hospital in Roehampton, south west London.

"While this will regrettably mean patients and their families will have to travel a greater distance, we will ensure close links with Huntercombe colleagues to support our patients returning to Antelope House’s acute wards as soon as clinically possible.

“However, where there is a bed available at Parklands, this will be considered as an option to avoid people travelling out of county where possible.

“We agree that the cost of living in the South is an issue and are now offering relocation packages to tackle this disadvantage.

"We also have very good links with local universities and want to ensure nurses and doctors in training have greater support and opportunities to gain experience working at Antelope House.

“We are sorry we did not have as much time as we would want to communicate with service users and families about this change and apologise for any inconvenience or disruption.

"Due to staffing pressures we have had to move very quickly once the decision was made.

"We have informed all patients and families and are keen to support with travel and ongoing communication.

"We’d encourage people to speak to their care team about any requirements and we will do all we can to help.”

Daily Echo:

PICTURED: Tim Smart, chairman of Southern Health

THE temporary closure of Antelope House’s PICU follows a series of scandals hitting Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust.

A damning Care Quality Commission (CQC) report condemned the trust for “serious failings” in safety and failures to investigate the deaths of hundreds of people with mental health problems and learning difficulties in its care.

But an internal review published last week found “no evidence of negligence or incompetence of any individual board member” and that chief executive Katrina Percy can remain in post.

As previously reported the organisation was ordered to make improvements at Antelope House following another CQC report in 2014.

It followed an inspection which revealed care records going missing, medicines were not handled properly and patients were put at risk.

Southern Health runs a series of mental health services across Hampshire, providing services for 45,000 people in Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.