INPATIENT wards at Somerset’s community hospitals could begin re-opening as early as June, provided that more nurses can be recruited.

The Somerset Partnership NHS Foundation Trust operates 13 community hospitals across Somerset, providing more than 200 inpatient beds.

Chard and Shepton Mallet’s hospitals saw their in-patient wards temporarily closed in October, along with one of the two wards at Dene Barton hospital in Cotford St Luke near Taunton.

Now the trust has stated that it is “optimistic” that one of the sites could reopen soon as it strives to recruit more nurses from outside the European Union.

Two members of the trust’s board gave a progress report to Somerset County Council’s adults and health scrutiny committee, which met in Taunton on Wednesday morning (April 11).

In a written report published ahead of the meeting, the trust’s director of governance Phil Brice said that the temporary closures had ensured that the system had maintained enough capacity over the winter months.

He said: “The temporary measures to consolidate beds on fewer sites have supported stability during the winter period.

“However, while the winter escalation remains in place, neither the re-opening of beds nor alternative models are viable.”

The board has been currently reviewing staff levels on a weekly basis since the end of March.

Andy Heron, the trust’s deputy chief executive and chief operating officer, said that it was “a case of one step forward, one step back” due to staff sickness and absences.

Chief nurse Hayley Peters said that this was a national issue, caused in part by the removal of the nursing bursary in August 2017 and ongoing uncertainty over Brexit.

She added: “This is compounded by the lack of a university here.

“There are no new nurses in Somerset – we are not going to get them in Somerset.”

Ms Peters added that ongoing efforts to recruit nurses from Australia, Dubai, India and the Philippines were proving successful, and she remained “hopeful” that at least one of the wards could reopen soon.

She said: “There are some green shoots. I am optimistic that, come June, we can reopen one of the community hospital wards.

“Our existing staff have been fantastically flexible.”

Neither Ms Peters nor Mr Heron confirmed which of the three wards would reopen first, with the later explaining that a decision would be taken on the basis of staffing levels at other hospitals in the area.

Mr Heron said: “With Shepton Mallet we would look at West Mendip, Wincanton and Frome.

“With Chard, it would be South Petherton and Crewkerne, and with Dene Barton it would be Minehead.”

Councillor Andrew Govier said that this was “a very serious situation” and that the system seemed “very, very fragile”.

He also voiced concerns as to whether further wards could be affected by the Sustainability Transformation Programme (STP) – proposals drawn up by Somerset’s NHS trusts which aim to improve healthcare provision across the county.

Mr Heron responded: “We very, very much value our community hospitals. They will be part of the landscape going forward.”

Councillor Hazel Prior-Sankey, who chairs the scrutiny committee, said that she would lobby all five Somerset MPs over bursary assistance for trainee nurses, help in attracting nurses from oversea and help in establishing a university where nurses could train.

An update on the STP will be considered by the committee on May 9.