MEALS on wheels volunteers say their service has suffered a sudden drop in referrals - and they fear this is another attempt to get the service phased out.

Referrals from hospitals and social services have plummeted from 264 in 2003/4 to just 52 in 2005/6.

Now Women's Royal Volunteer Service members who run the scheme say they are worried the council may still be trying to end the meals on wheels service.

Volunteer Diane Davies, 51, said: "We definitely get the impression that after last year's outcry at plans to end the service they are trying to get numbers so low it's not worth running anymore."

But Councillor Paul Cockeram, cabinet member for social and housing services, denies any such plans.

He said: "There are no plans to axe meals on wheels. "Whether new things will be introduced in the future, I don't know." He says the drop in referrals can be explained by the introduction of re-enablement teams around the time of last year's review.

These teams help to rehabilitate people leaving hospital or in need of social care, either by delivering or helping prepare food, or by offering social contact and general assistance. He added that meals on wheels numbers dwindled after elderly people were properly assessed following a review last summer - encouraging pensioners, if they are able, to cook for themselves.

Currently just 60 people use the service.

Last February Newport council's plans to scrap meals on wheels met with anger from volunteer providers and the elderly who used the service. The Argus launched a campaign which resulted in a U-turn on the decision.

Now Conservative councillor David Fouweather is also worried about the sudden drop in numbers.

He said: "I made inquiries with council officers and was told the instruction during the review period was 'no referrals'."

He was also told post-review that criteria had changed and social workers were "accessing home care solutions in a different way".

He said: "It seems the council is deliberately reducing the number of people who get meals on wheels with a view to ending it."

Councillor Cockeram said: "We never set out to change the criteria to end meals on wheels."

Volunteers are frustrated at helping fewer and fewer people. Ms Davies said: "I love volunteering for such a worthwhile service and feel strongly about keeping it."