Health experts have defended strict visitor restrictions in Whitehaven and Carlisle's hospitals after cases of viral infections and flu trebled.

North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs the West Cumberland Hospital and Cumberland Infirmary, has introduced restrictions including no visiting by children under-12; no visiting outside normal visiting hours; only one visitor per patient permitted in the emergency department or ambulatory care; on all wards no more than two visitors per patient; strict hand-washing guidance must be followed.

Clive Graham, consultant medical microbiologist, said: "We had been running at about 17 cases a week this winter but last week we saw an increase up to 51.

"That's quite a dramatic peak so we considered the actions we'd taken already and felt we needed to do something different.

"A lot of these cases are coming in from the community and we were aware there were some other sites that had introduced restrictions on visitors of this type and there is evidence it reduces the risk."

Mr Graham said the recent rise had forced the trust to step up efforts to tackle the spread.

"We felt we had to do something additional," he added.

"We're going to look at it on a day-by-day basis and as soon as we feel it is safe and appropriate we will ease the restrictions."

People can continue to visit a patient in receipt of palliative/end of life care as normal, but are urged to contact the ward before, and Mr Graham said wards would have discretion to allow visits if they felt they were needed.

He added: "It's up to the individual wards to decide where it's particularly important for the patient to see visitors."

Mr Graham advised people who have developed symptoms of viral infections or flu to stay at home and look after themselves and issued a reminder about the importance of vaccination.

A spokeswoman for North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust added: “This is not a decision that has been taken lightly and the restrictions have been put in place to ensure the safety of our patients, staff and visitors.

“Patient appointments, procedures and surgeries are unaffected.”