KENNET and North Wiltshire Primary Care Trust has denied that services are being run down at Devizes Hospital following the closure a 20-bed ward last week.

The trust said the ward was shut as part of a drive for more efficient use of resources. It said it would re-open if more patients needed to be admitted.

Currently there are 18 patients in the hospital. The trust said by moving them on to one ward, fewer agency nurses were needed.

Elizabeth Ward South had been due to close in October as part of the trust's plans to treat more people in their own homes, but there are growing fears in the town that the closures have been put on fast track.

Trust chief executive Barbara Smith told a trust board meeting on Tuesday that there were no patients waiting to be transferred to Devizes Hospital from other hospitals or from the community.

She said: "The beds on Elizabeth Ward South have not been closed. If patients need to go into Devizes Hospital they will be admitted. "

Roger Davey, senior steward of Wiltshire Unison, which represents some health staff, accused the trust of running down Devizes Hospital.

He said: "I don't know why the patient numbers have got so low at the moment as there is a bed shortage in the South West.

"I understood the ward at Devizes Hospital was closed because of staff shortages as the trust has not been filling vacancies in the last year and has been relying on agency staff.

"How soon will it be before the second ward closes due to a shortage of staff, followed by the whole hospital? I am concerned the ward closure is the beginning of the end for the hospital.

"I can see the whole hospital closing before 2005 because of staff shortages. Is the trust going to continue not to replace staff and gradually run the hospital down and close it?"

Mr Davey said the lack of consultation on the ward closure, although not a legal requirement, concerned him.

Paula Winchcombe, Devizes Mayor and chairman of Devizes Action to Save Our Hospital, said: "We need reassurance that if the need is there the beds will be opened. We also need to know if the number of patients at the hospital is normal, or if there has been a scaling down.

"There is a level of concern in the community that services are being scaled down at the hospital."

There is also new concern that a new day surgery unit may not be built at Green Lane in 2005.

Dr Toby Davies, a Ludgershall GP, told the trust meeting: "We are strongly backing Devizes as the base for a day surgery centre, but to be feasible we need other hospital trusts to send their consultants to work there.

"But there is a conflict as West Wiltshire Primary Care Trust has a facility in Melksham, and the feeling is that a Devizes facility would make that unviable."

Donna Stiles, chief executive of West Wiltshire Primary Care Trust, said: "We are working together with other trusts and the Royal United Hospital, Bath, to explore options on locations for the future."

Dr Charles Cowen, chairman of the Devizes GP committee, said: "If we don't get a day surgery unit, it would mean people having to travel further and wait longer for treatment."

The trust said it is setting up teams to treat people at home, 24 hours a day. They will start work in October.