SWINDON'S Great Western Hospital finances have slipped back into the red, just months after the trust freed itself from debt.

In April, the trust was celebrating the end of a five-year debt recovery plan which transformed a £3.7m debt into a positive balance of £13,000.

But the latest finance report to land on the desk of new chief executive Lyn Hill-Tout reveals the trust is now shouldering a £572,000 debt.

And finance officers warn that unless action is taken to rein in expenditure, the debt could double by the end of the year. In the report's words: "This position is extremely serious."

The trust's human resources director Paul Bentley said: "We are a hospital trust with a financial position in excess of £25m a year. To put it another way, the hospital costs over £2 million a week to run.

"We take our financial management very seriously. That is why we have highlighted this issue.

"We are three months in to the year and our finance people are pointing out that we need to do something to nip this in the bud.

"We don't want to spiral into difficulty. We want to get on top of this now.

"At Friday's board meeting, we are going to be discussing the best way to approach this problem.

"We are an open organisation and we are not going to have this discussion behind closed doors."

At the root of the hospital's financial strife is the money the trust is forced to spend on agency nurses and locum medical staff to cover for staff sickness and lack of permanent staff.

The recent report on Swindon and Marlborough NHS Trust described the hospital's sickness absence rate of 5.9 per cent of staff significantly above the national benchmark of 4.5 per cent.

Mr Bentley explained: "The NHS as an organisation has a higher sickness rate than most other organisations because of the physical and often stressful nature of the work.

"We will be looking at why our sickness rate is this high.

"We are an organisation of more than 3,000 staff and at any one time there are numerous people leaving and joining. That said, our turn over rate is lower than our neighbouring trusts.

"We are pushing to recruit more permanent staff, so that we can save money by not having to pay agency fees. We want to cut out the middleman."

He added that as part of the recruitment drive, three nurses from the trust have travelled to Manila, the capital of the Philippines where they aim to sign up 20 new cardiac nurses.

"We are expanding the number of beds in the hospital. Over the next few months, we should have about 50 new beds. It is important that we have the staff to run them."