Patient groups have criticised a hospital where staff shortages were so severe that nurses say they were forced to put elderly patients to bed at 4 o'clock in the afternoon.

Barking Dagenham and Havering community health council made an unannounced visit last month to Corbet ward at St George's Hospital in Hornchurch, following a number of complaints. It found that seven of the qualified nursing staff of 16 were off work due to sickness.

It said the situation was made potentially dangerous because the sister on the ward carried the cardiac arrest bleep for the whole hospital and the patient call alarm in the ward day room - which was out of earshot of the ward - was broken.

Age Concern says it has never heard of patients being put to bed in the afternoon: 'We think it is totally unacceptable for patients to be treated like this, however difficult resource issues are.

'Even if there is a high level of sickness among staff, patients should not have to suffer in this way.'

CHC assistant chief officer Chrissy Woods, who made the visit, said: 'There were just four full-time qualified staff on the ward - a sister and three agency nurses, plus a student, to look after 30 confused elderly people.'

'The sister on duty confirmed that patients were put to bed at 4pm because they were so short staffed. She said that with 30 patients they decided to put people to bed early so that it would make serving food and then doing the medicine rounds easier.

'If they left the medicine rounds 'til later, the agency staff would have left, because their shift finishes at 6pm while full-time staff change shifts at 8pm.'

Ms Woods said that nurses had asked permission of patients before putting them to bed. 'They said they only selected the 'tiredest and frailest' patients first. But even so, I don't think it's acceptable.'

The CHC has also been concerned about the lack of activities for patients. 'They just sit in the day room in armchairs all day with nothing to do.'

A spokesperson for BHB Community Health Care trust said that many of the problems highlighted by the CHC had been addressed.

'There was no reduction in staff on the ward per se. It was a issue that emerged at the time and more resources have been put in to make sure that the issue doesn't arise again. All of the concerns raised by the CHC will be addressed by the director of nursing.'