A group of nurses, health professionals and patients has launched a fight against what they claim are "shameful" proposals to close wards at Kendal's hospital.

Under the banner of NHS SOS Save our Services, the group is campaigning against the proposed closures of Wards 2 and 4 at Westmorland General Hospital, as well as bed closures on Wards 3 and 5.

The campaigners have not ruled out a demonstration to get their point across, in an echo of the huge march in 2001 by supporters of the hospital's Helme Chase Maternity Unit, which was under threat at the time.

They say they have already collected 1,000 petition signatures, and are launching their campaign at a public meeting on December 6, when they plan to tell the public that finances should not come before patient care.

Andrew Billson-Page, who works on Ward 4 and is a Unison representative for the hospital, said there was strong feeling in the community about the closures: "There's not a day gone by when I have gone into town and a former patient or somebody who knows a patient on the ward has not come up to me and asked what are we doing about it."

The campaign follows the news of serious financial problems at Morecambe Bay Primary Care Trust, and Morecambe Bay Hospitals NHS Trust.

While the hospitals trust announced the closure of 19 beds on Ward 5 and all 12 beds on Ward 3, as part of up to 130 beds to be shut bay-wide, the PCT is consulting on the closure of Ward 4, which is for adults with mental health problems, and its transfer to Ridge Lea Hospital in Lancaster. It has also launched a consultation on the closure of Ward 2, for older people with mental health problems, and its replacement with community services.

Mr Billson-Page said their approach differed from a campaign run by Westmorland and Lonsdale MP Tim Farron, because they did not believe there would be any additional money available from the Government to help the trusts balance their books this year.

Instead, he said they should press the two trusts to find other savings.

He pointed out that although the PCT might save money by closing Wards 2 and 4, there would be a cost to the hospitals trust, which leases the wards to the PCT, and it would just be a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

The hospitals trust confirmed this week that it received £500,000 per year for the leased wards from the PCT.

Mr Billson-Page said there was also a need to challenge the Government on the way it funds the NHS.

Hospitals trust human resources director Jon Lenney said: "Because of the trust's financial position we are having to make difficult decisions. We are working through these decisions jointly with staff side colleagues and they are actively contributing to the discussions on financial recovery proposals."

PCT chief executive Leigh Griffin said that there was a very "open and honest" consultation taking place about Wards 2 and 4, and he was keen to hear from anyone with ideas.

Charles Batteson, who is a member of both Kendal Town and South Lakeland District Councils, said he would be speaking at the December 6 meeting, although not in his capacity as a councillor. He has been a patient on Ward 4, and said that although his visitors would have been able to travel to Lancaster, he knew of many people whose friends and relatives would not.

"It would be a huge problem for a lot of other people, not least for those who have lost their job because they have been ill, and are under economic pressure," he said. "I think it's a threat to vulnerable people."

Tim Farron has launched a petition, which has so far attracted approximately 500 signatures, which urges the Government to take immediate action to prevent cuts in Morecambe Bay, and for the extra costs of providing healthcare in rural areas to be taken into account. Westmorland Gazette readers have returned a further 280 petition forms.

Mr Farron, who said he had been approached by "dozens" of worried constituents, said there was room for his campaign as well as the NHS SOS campaign.

l The NHS SOS meeting will take place at the Shakespeare Centre, Highgate, Kendal, at 7pm on Tuesday, December 6.

l The dates of public consultation meetings about Wards 2 and 4 have been announced by the PCT. They are: Ward 2 - November 28, Stricklandgate House, Kendal, 6pm; December 2, Rayrigg Rooms, Rayrigg Road, Bowness, 3pm; December 13, Berners Swimming and Fitness Centre, Grange-over-Sands, 11am. Ward 4 - November 30, Friends Meeting House, Lancaster, 7pm; December 7, Stricklandgate House, Kendal, 7pm.