FORMER patients, carers and community leaders gathered outside Huntingdonshire’s only mental health in-patient facility on Saturday to protest against plans for its closure.

Around 40 people picketed for two hours outside Hinchingbrooke Hospital's Acer Ward, with one protester describing the proposed closure as an "attack on a local community."

The 18-bed ward was 'temporarily' closed in October after clinicians deemed it unsafe and is due to be permanently shut down from April as part of a county-wide reform of mental health services, if plans are approved this month.

Since October, patients have had to travel to the Cavell Centre in Peterborough for treatment.

A straw poll conducted by protesters in the morning of 217 shoppers in Huntingdon town centre, found 99 per cent of people backed the campaign for the ward to re-open. Only three people agreed it should be closed.

At the protest, which coincided with the 18th anniversary of the ward, mental health patient Sheryl Wonnacott spoke of the distress caused by the closure.

She said: "I have this week had to face the fact I might end up in the Cavell Centre. I have a wonderful partner but he has chronic depression himself, and he works shifts.

"He would try to support me up at the Cavell Centre, but it would be a total nightmare for him to do that - to work shifts and not get depressed.

"My parents are very elderly and live in Norfolk. My dad has had psychotic depression and my mum isn't very well. It would be a struggle for them to get to see me. It is very hard for older people to get to see loved ones all that distance.

"I have done that journey from here to the Cavell Centre, it was 50 minutes and it was a really exhausting visit. Psychiatric wards are always quite stressful. I actually found the Cavell Centre quite stressful because of its massive environment."

Fellow campaigner Liz Stokes was a patient of Acer Ward from 2000 to 2006. Her father also suffered with bipolar. She said: "I would like to remember him today because he didn't have the local care that I have been very lucky to have."

St Ives town councillor Jonathan Salt said: "This attack on Acer Ward is not just an attack on a building. It is an attack on the local community and some of the most vulnerable people in our community.

"We need local health facilities for the local community. At least two people have come up to me today, who have been affected by this closure. They have been totally isolated from their family, loved ones and their community.

"We have got to fight to keep local health services available for the local community."

A four-month consultation into the closure finished in January and a final decision on the ward's closure will be made by the NHS Cambridgeshire and NHS Peterborough board at its meeting on March 28.