ALL wards at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary have tonight been shut to visitors because of the highly contagious winter vomiting bug.

University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust (UHMBT) said it had been forced to make the "difficult decision to close all wards to visitors for at least the next 48 hours," following cases of the novovirus.

A statement read: "Despite every effort by the Trust, the highly contagious winter bug has continued to spread, now affecting seven wards. So far, approximately 140 patients and 20 staff have been affected by symptoms.

"In order to ensure that the hospital can return to normal as soon as possible, the decision has been made to close all wards to visitors for at least 48 hours."

"The Trust understands that there may be extenuating circumstances where members of the public need to visit loved ones, such as if they seriously ill. "If this is the case, the public are asked to call ahead to the ward to arrange visiting. If it isn’t deemed as extenuating circumstances, they may be asked not to visit."

"For maternity, neonatal and paediatric services, only the parents or one guardian of a sick child are asked to attend the wards or neonatal unit. Where at all possible, no siblings are to come to the wards to protect themselves from infection as well as mothers, babies and already sick children.

"However, the Trust appreciates that this may not be possible for some families and would ask in these circumstances, visitors called the wards ahead of their visit.

"For those members of the public that do visit the hospital, they must not have been sick or had diarrhoea in the last 72 hours or been in close contact with someone who has. "They are also asked to ensure they wash their hands with soap and water before entering the hospital. Alcohol gel is not effective against norovirus.

"It is important to note that if it is an emergency or life threatening situation, people should attend the Emergency Department as normal. "However, members of the public are urged not to come to the Emergency Department if they have diarrhoea and vomiting symptoms, unless they need emergency medical treatment. "Instead, they should telephone their GP or NHS Direct on 0845 4647."

Outpatient clinics are continuing as normal but people suffering with symptoms who are due to attend the hospital for an appointment should telephone the department first for advice.

Juliet Walters, Chief Operating Officer, said: “Whilst we understand that this may seem drastic to some people, our usual infection control methods need to be supplemented with the assistance of the public to help control and resolve the outbreak.

“It has been widely reported that the levels of this bug are 83 per cent higher nationally than last year. There is also a huge increase of the bug in the community and we believe that members of the public who are coming into the hospital, carrying the bug or similar bugs – sometimes without knowledge - may be contributing to the problem.

“By reducing the number of people coming into our hospital, we can reduce the risk of norovirus spreading to further wards.

“This decision has not been taken lightly as we know it will be frustrating for people who have friends and family in hospital but we have a duty of care to protect the wellbeing and safety of our patients and staff, and this has to be our main priority.

“Our staff are working extremely hard to deal with this outbreak quickly and this decision will help us return services to normal as soon as possible. To help us achieve this, we would appreciate the co-operation of the public.”

The trust said the norovirus illness affects up to a million people in the UK each year and does not last long and people usually recover between 12 and 60 hours without treatment other than rest and lots of fluids.

It is found in the community and is easily transmitted. The bug affects schools, workplaces and other areas where groups of people are in close proximity, such as hospitals.

The elderly and young are said to be more vulnerable to the infection.