Kidney experts have accused the government of making 'no tangible response' to a serious shortage of transplant surgeons that contributed to a five-day suspension of operations at University Hospital of Wales last week.

The hospital, where two renal transplant surgeon posts are vacant, was forced to refuse donor kidneys after one of its two remaining surgeons took leave and the other dealt only with routine clinical duties after 15 days on-call.

Trust spokesman Bob Burrows said the trust was waiting 'with fingers crossed' to see whether candidates who had visited the hospital would fill the vacancies.

Royal College of Surgeons of England council member Professor Peter Bell said: 'I believe there are shortages at other hospitals as well.'

The RCS published a report in January 1999 warning that 'the crisis in renal transplantation is immediate'.

A working party led by Oxford University Nuffield professor of surgery Sir Peter Morris concluded there were about 10 renal transplant consultant vacancies in the UK, the number of surgical trainees opting for a career in renal transplantation was falling and few units could operate the recommended on-call rota.

The report recommended rationalisation to reduce the number of renal transplant units. But even with a reduction from 28 to 22 units, 88 consultants would be needed, 21 more than at the time of the report. UHW's clinical director of nephrology services, Richard Moore, said there had been 'no tangible response from the government'and 'there really is a crisis at the moment'.

'There are several hospitals in the UK that cannot fulfil their quota of transplant surgery.'

A Department of Health spokesperson said it had 'accepted the RCS recommendation on minimum staffing' and was 'in the process of setting up a working party with the RCS on workforce issues and workforce planning'.

Junior health minister Lord Hunt announced the working party last month, while responding to claims that 'racist' conditions had been attached to organs for transplant last year.

RCS working party member and Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh transplant consultant John Forsythe said surgeons were 'dedicated to the cause and simply work harder', but 'it can't be good' that they were on-call for long periods.

Paul Lear, chair of the British Transplantation Society's training advisory committee, said: 'Someone has to have the grit to tell units they have to close and move the work elsewhere.'

Nadey Hakim, surg ical director of transplants at St Mary's Hospital, London, said he was on call 'for very long' periods, but stressed that staff were 'carrying on'.

Consultant nephrologist and director of transplantation at Plymouth Derriford Hospital Peter Rowe said his unit was 'near enough' fully staffed, but recruitment was 'very difficult'.

Driving ambitions An ambulance service has advertised for retired drivers to transport organs for transplant across the UK.

The West Midlands Ambulance trust is seeking 'anyone who has recently retired from the ambulance service'with two years' experience of emergency driving.Volunteers would have to join in a stand-by rota 'providing 24-hour cover'but would be paid expenses of 35p per mile.The British Kidney Patients'Association president Elizabeth Ward said: 'I think it is marvellous that people want to save money.'