A COMMUNITY hospital which has been at the centre of controversy over its running, is prioritising rehabilitation patients over clinical patients because it is struggling to recruit staff.

Campaigners have now branded the latest news 'disgraceful' that problems recruiting nurses to the hospital have led to it not taking on any new clinical referrals and that it could take three months before the shortage is rectified.

Last year campaigners lost the fight to have the 14-bed Henry Cornish care centre, in Chipping Norton, continue being run by Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust.

Initially the centre had been run by the Orders of St John Care Trust with nurses seconded from the NHS Trust. It then changed so both Trusts were in partnership.

Then last year, Oxfordshire County Council decided it was impossible to make the system work under two sets of management.

It was also stated that NHS nurses could no longer be provided within the available budgets as it was costing almost £1,800 per week, per bed; more than twice the cost of Orders of St John carers.

Despite intervention from David Cameron who met with campaigners, NHS bosses and the county council, the campaign was lost and the Order of St John Care Trust took over the running of the intermediate care beds at the beginning of April this year.

Oxfordshire county councillor Hilary Hibbert-Biles, whose ward covers Chipping Norton, said it was a "disgrace" it would take three months to recruit new staff.

She told the committee it was "unbelievable" patients needing clinical care were being turned away.

She added: "This is a further downgrade of patient beds to that of a care home - exactly what the people have been fighting against over the years.

"This is now about the loss of a hospital and inpatient beds serving a huge rural community."

OSJCT strategy director Sarah Livadeas stressed the charity could only begin hiring staff after it won the contract, and was using agency staff to plug the gaps.

She added: "We are not turning people away."

The board heard fewer nurses than predicted offered to transfer from Oxford Health to the OSJCT, and gaps were being filled by healthcare assistants and agency staff.

The charity is aiming to bring the unit up to 15 full-time staff.

Members of the county's Joint Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee agreed to give the charity and county council three months to plug the gap, on the condition the future of the unit was included in a consultation about community hospital care due to begin this autumn.