REPLACING freshlycooked food with chilled ready meals at Oxfordshire’s community hospitals will be a “step back into the dark ages”, a patients’ watchdog has warned.

Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the nine hospitals, said the new system would be more cost effective.

But staff and patients are said to be “deeply concerned” about the cost-saving decision, which could see chef jobs cut.

Food is already prepared using the “cook chill” process at Abingdon, Henley, Bicester and Oxford City hospitals, and the method will now be rolled out to Chipping Norton, Didcot, Wallingford, Wantage and Witney.

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Cook chill sees food prepared and cooked elsewhere before being chilled, transported to the hospital and then reheated on site.

Jacqueline Pearce-Gervis, chairwoman of Oxfordshire’s Patient Voice group, said: “This would be a step back into the Dark Ages.

“Cook-chill food is absolutely horrible. Never ask for an omelette – it’s like India rubber.

“We should be maintaining fresh food. These people are in for weeks or months and need to build their strength to get well and go home.”

In 2013/14, 2,066 people spent a total of 70,079 days in community hospitals.

Staff at Wantage Community Hospital were told about the plans, to come into effect between April and June, this month.

County councillor for Wantage Jenny Hannaby said she was concerned by the fact there appeared to have been no consultation.

Mrs Hannaby, also chairwoman of the Wantage Community Hospital League of Friends, said: “Hospital food should build patients up so they can go home healthy.

“The chef at Wantage takes great care to ensure patients have the right food and the right amount, using fresh ingredients.

“And if a patient has certain requirements they can alter meals which you can’t do with chilled meals.”

The Wantage hospital had a new kitchen put in three years ago so food could be prepared on site.

One man whose mother is receiving long-term treatment at Wantage said: “The food there is really good. It’s all freshly-made on site, really well cooked with fresh vegetables – it’s stuff that people who are poorly need.”

The menu currently includes shepherd’s pie and fish on a Friday, he said.

Oxford Health spokesman Alistair Duncan said: “We are proposing to implement a new process for the preparation of meals at our community hospital sites to ensure consistency in terms of quality and nutritional value and to ensure food hygiene. It is also a more efficient and cost-effective system.”

He said “several staff ” would be affected by the plans and the trust was currently “consulting with them”. But Oxford Health did not respond when asked if patients or the public were consulted on the changes.

Mr Duncan said: “For any staff that are identified as affected, they will be offered training and redeployment elsewhere within the trust.”

Hospital kitchens will now be used to reheat food, he said.

Freelance Oxford nutritionist Helen Money said: “It is a huge issue.

When people are ill they often lose their appetite anyway so it is really important to encourage them to eat to get well.”

Hospital meals made the headlines last October when it was reported they were being cooked for as little as 89p, prompting fears over their nutritional value.

The Department of Health set up a Hospital Food Standards Panel in December 2013 to introduce minimum standards built into NHS catering contracts.

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