A HEALTH trust has said it is “anxious” about the future of community hospitals in Somerset because it can’t recruit enough nurses.

Two of Somerset’s community hospital wards will remain closed until the spring and there are high levels of staff vacancies at others – particularly Minehead, Wincanton, West Mendip and Bridgwater.

The trust that runs community hospitals is struggling to find more nurses because of perceptions of about the care profession, a lack of support for education and the rural location of hospitals.

Inpatient wards at Chard, Dene Barton and Shepton Mallet community hospitals were temporarily closed in October 2017, with the beds being moved to other sites to provide extra capacity during the winter.

Other wards at the hospital are not included in the closures and continue to see paitents. 

Shepton Mallet’s ward reopened in July, and the Somerset Partnership NHS Foundation Trust – which runs all 13 community hospitals in Somerset – promised at the time that no further wards would close ahead of the coming winter.

The trust has now confirmed that neither Chard nor Dene Barton will reopen until March 2019 at the earliest – and hinted that it may be hard to keep all 11 of the remaining hospitals open in the longer term.

A report into community hospital staffing levels came before Somerset County Council’s adults and health scrutiny committee in Taunton on Wednesday morning (September 5).

Chief nurse Hayley Peters said that the national picture for recruiting nursing had “probably worsened”, claiming that the removal of the nursing bursary had led to a 20 per cent drop in the number of people applying to study nursing at university across the UK.

She said that the trust had been carrying out “relentless” recruitment, which had produced “some, but limited benefits” in staffing levels.

She added: “We are seeing quite a depressing trend in the availability of even very expensive agency staff.

“We are not going to be able to reopen Dene Barton and Chard this winter, and we remain anxious about the sustainability of the community hospitals.”

In a written report presented to the committee, the trust said that staffing levels were a challenge across all 13 sites.

A spokesperson said: “Within Somerset a number of local geographical areas continue to present a severe and sustained challenge for recruitment and retention.

“Across the community hospitals, these shortages pose risks to the continued provision of high quality safe care due to high levels of unfilled shifts and high levels of temporary staffing.”

Seven of the 11 inpatient wards run by the trust currently have a nursing vacancy rate of between 16 and 32 per cent, as of the end of July.

Of particular concern are Minehead hospital (which has a 30.4 per cent vacancy rate),  Wincanton (27.6 per cent), West Mendip (27.56 per cent), Burnham-on-Sea (22.62 per cent) and Wellington (16.04 per cent).

South Petherton and Crewkerne hospitals are both “improving” as a result of staff from Chard’s closed ward being posted there.

Bridgwater hospital, on the other hand, is described as “fragile” in light of a number of recent resignations.

As part of its winter planning , the trust has said that the Luke ward at Dene Barton community hospital will become home to the outpatient physiotherapy services at Musgrove Park Hospital.

This is designed to free up more acute beds at Musgrove to allow its emergency department to better cope with the winter pressures, and could last until March 2019.

The trust has said that its staffing levels has “deteriorated” since July and that it ws therefore unfeasible to reopen both Chard and Dene Barton’s inpatient wards until March at the earliest.

A spokesperson said: “It is evident that the staffing position, after improving in the period to July 2018, has begun to deteriorate again and access to temporary staffing is becoming more challenging.

“We have concluded, with the Community Hospital Resilience Group, that we need to develop contingency plans in the event that the staffing position deteriorates further.”

Councillor Mark Healey said: “Michael Eavis has offered to give away free tickets to the Glastonbury Festival to people who go into nursing. Why are we finding it difficult to recruit?”

Ms Peters responded: “As a society we don’t value care. We don’t have a university in Somerset.

“Nursing typically attracts a cohort of older students: the loss of the bursary and the introduction of tuition fees has precluded people from going into it.”

“These community hospitals have a real identity. We actively recruit to their communities – we recruit to Frome, we recruit to South Petherton, we don’t recruit to ‘the Somerset Partnership’.

“Nurses that are coming from Barcelona don’t particularly want to work in a community setting – they want to be in a city and they want to be at a hospital.”

Councillor Mandy Chilcott added: “We seem to be reaching the point where keeping a hospital open or closed depends on whether you can get the staff to keep it safe.

“The pipeline from Europe has decreased dramatically – where do we go from here?”

Ms Peters said that the long-term solution was a radical change in the way in which the care system in England was structured.

She said: “We need to radically transform the way we deliver care, so that registered nurses only do what nurses have to do. The model of care has to change.

“We have underdeveloped services in Somerset in terms of the community offer – I really hope that we can address that at pace.

“We cannot sustain what we have, and it is not meeting patient or community needs.”