Published: 31/01/2002, Volume II2, No. 5790 Page 9

The stomach bug sweeping the UK and laying low NHS staff and patients could tip trusts already under pressure over the edge, senior managers have warned.

Portsmouth Hospital trust said it was on high alert, although it believed it had escaped the highly infectious virus causing vomiting and diarrhoea. A spokesperson said: 'The concern is capacity.We are operating at over 100 per cent bed occupancy so we have to be very careful not to be overwhelmed if there is another outbreak.'

Three wards at Birmingham's Heartlands Hospital were affected by the virus, with eight staff and 13 patients falling ill, though a spokesperson for the trust said the hospital was now running normally.

At Maidstone Hospital, 32 patients were infected, along with two wards which were closed to new admissions Glasgow has been hardest hit, with more than 250 patients and staff infected at Victoria Infirmary. Managers at South Glasgow University Hospitals trust drafted in infection-control nurses and expert laboratory staff to deal with the crisis, along with extra resources and a dedicated senior trust manager to step up cleaning efforts.

The virus appears to have struck first in Northern Ireland early this month, causing ward closures and the cancellation of non-emergency surgery across the province.

Senior managers have argued that the crisis is the result of chronic shortage of capacity within what they claim is a severely underfunded service.

The Public Health Laboratory Service said the infection rate of the small, round-structured virus causing the stomach symptoms was probably only slightly higher than normal for winter - although it stressed that no precise figures could be compiled as many of those who contract the bug do not report it to their GP.