Published: 07/06/2002, Volume II2, No. 5808 Page 4

The first UK hospital built under the private finance initiative is set to have a temporary extension less than two years after it was officially opened.

The surprise move - scheduled for September - comes after critics repeatedly claimed Carlisle's Cumberland Infirmary has too few beds. Management at the£87m hospital has confirmed it is now considering a temporary 15bed extension so surgeons can get through more operations and reduce waiting times.

Around 700 people have waited more than nine months for nonurgent operations. Managers say these patients would benefit from shorter waiting times if the plan was implemented. Patients would be able to stay in the extension for up to three days after surgery, leaving more free beds in the infirmary's main building.

The move comes nine months after senior doctors at the hospital demanded a 50-bed extension.

Dr Paul Dyson, who chairs the committee representing the hospital's senior doctors, said of the plan: 'It is too little too late. It is become more obvious as time has gone on that this hospital is just too small. We have heard the extension would be a Portacabin-type thing attached to the new hospital.

'Recently, the infirmary was full to acute admissions, West Cumbria Hospital in Whitehaven was full, the hospital in Dumfries was full, and all the local cottage hospitals were full. If there had been a minibus crash, God knows where the casualties would have gone.'

Brian Earley, director of patient access with North Cumbria Acute Hospitals Trust said an official report on bed numbers in north Cumbria recently concluded that the area does have enough acute hospital beds (news, 29 November 2001). The problem, he insisted, was that some patients were inappropriately admitted to the infirmary while other recovering patients remained there too long because of the shortage of intermediate beds and care home places.

He said: 'We are exploring with organisations who can supply temporary units. They have been used in a number of hospitals.

We are looking at this as an option for the short term - no more than 12 months. It would cost£130,000 for the year for the building and£80,000 for the staffing costs. This option would help us achieve national and local waiting list targets. If It is going to work, we need the units on site by September.'

A final decision on the plan is expected within two weeks.