The Welsh Office has come under fire for advertising top posts in an all-Wales ambulance service trust before the end of public consultation on whether one should be set up.

Advertisements for a chair and five non-executive directors were placed in Welsh newspapers six weeks before public consultation ends on 27 January.

But a Welsh Office spokesperson said: 'This does not mean a decision has already been taken.'

He said the advertisements had been placed because, 'if the secretary of state decides on an all-Wales trust, there will not be time to make these arrangements' before its proposed introduction on 1 April.

But Sue Wilshere, chief officer of the Association of Community Health Councils in Wales, said: 'The advertisements might be all right legally, but they send out all the wrong signals.'

The association has already claimed the consultation process is 'tokenistic' and considered mounting a legal challenge to it.

The advertisements have alarmed campaigners in Pembrokeshire, who want to retain the integrated ambulance and acute service run by Pembrokeshire and Derwen trust.

Rob Griffiths, chair of the trust's medical staff committee, said he could 'hardly believe' they had been placed when the merger was opposed by Pembrokeshire CHC, the area's two MPs, the trust board and its medical staff committee.

'We believe we have an excellent ambulance service, thank you very much,' he said. 'And as it ain't broke, we don't want it fixed.'

Campaigners argue the Pembrokeshire service is cost-effective and efficient in benchmarking exercises.

Dr Griffiths said it could discharge patients home at four hours' notice, while the Welsh Office was looking for a 48-hour standard.

ACHCW is now calling for reassurances that the public consultation scheduled for June on a major programme of trust mergers will be 'meaningful'.

All five Welsh health authorities have been using working groups to draw up options for mergers, testing them against Welsh Office criteria issued in September.

Each is expected to put a preferred option to the Welsh Office by the end of the month.

A spokesperson for Iechyd Morgannwyg HA said a model in which two integrated trusts ran services had emerged as a front-runner, although it is still holding discussions on a range of options. It currently has four local trusts.

Bro Taf HA has produced a list of six options, the most radical of which suggests reducing its eight trusts to two combined trusts serving north and south Bro Taf.

Dyfed Powys HA is working with a list of six options, ranging from 'preserving the status quo' with five trusts to a single trust covering the entire area.

Gwent HA is looking at the possibility of reducing its three local trusts to two or one.

A spokesperson for North Wales HA said it was still working on 'a number' of options and the status quo would 'not be acceptable'.

The HA currently has three acute and two community trusts.

The number of Welsh trusts is expected to be halved at the end of the process, with many community trusts being merged with acute ones.

Journal sources suggest the merger programme is one reason the Welsh white paper, now expected in 'mid to late January', has been delayed.