Health chiefs have blamed an increase in car parking charges at Watford General Hospital on the VAT changes introduced this week.

Visitors to the Vicarage Road hospital must now pay £4 to use its car park for a maximum three hours – a 50p rise just seven months since prices were last increased.

This equates to a 14.3 per cent increase, which is considerably higher than the 2.5 per cent VAT increase adopted by the Coalition Government.

Signs posted around the Watford General state that the changes to VAT are behind the move, which came into force on Tuesday.

West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs the hospital, said on its website: “Due to an increase in VAT in January 2011, it is necessary for the trust to increase car parking charges to ensure that this does not have a financial impact on patient services.

“Please note that the trust does not make a profit from car parking and these new charges are simply to cover the increased costs.”

Motorists using the car park must now also pay £6 for up to five hours, an increase of £1, and £12 for an all day ticket, up from £10.

In June last year, prices rose for the first time in three years to £3.50 for three hours, £5 for five hours and £10 to use the car park all day.

However, patients visiting the hospital regularly, sometimes more than once a day, said the “outrageous” charges were a “rip-off”, which hit vulnerable patients and their relatives in the pocket.

Leslie Powell, 63, visited a relative at the hospital on several occasions this week, each time paying £4 during visiting hours lasting two hours in the morning and another one hour in the afternoon.

Mr Powell, of Greenbank Road, Watford, said: “Visiting a relative every day, these are quite considerable sums and many people I meet here, they find it a considerable burden and the concessions offered are minimal.

“The VAT increase has been used to make this unnecessary and unjustified increase and I feel that's exploiting sick people who really have no option but to use this facility.”

One outraged patient, who asked not to be named, said: “It's a real rip-off. They're advertising it's down to the VAT increase.

“I just feel for those people who have friends or relatives who are ill in hospital and are visiting them and paying these outrageous prices.”

In her online blog, Watford Mayor Dorothy Thornhill described hospital car parking charges as “sadly necessary” but told the Watford Observer any price increase should not be “blamed” on the VAT rise.

“It's their choice whether they they put up their charges or not but they should just do it and not blame it on VAT,” she said. “A 50p increase is not the same as the VAT increase.

“It's over-hyping the VAT rise.”

The charges in west Hertfordshire, which also affect hospitals in St Albans and Hemel Hempstead, also differ significantly to charges imposed by the East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust.

The trust, which runs four hospitals, including the Mount Vernon Cancer Centre in Northwood, has not increased its car park charges this week.

And patients visiting Mount Vernon or its hospitals in Stevenage, Hertford and Welwyn Garden City will continue to pay £2.50 for two hours, £4 for up to five hours and day tickets costing £6.

Peter Gibson, head of public affairs for the trust, said: “We have no plans to increase charges due to VAT. We haven't changed them for two or three years, but we may have to revisit that in the future.

“We're also building a multi-storey car park at the Lister [in Stevenage], which will have a different pay structure and charge patients for the time they use.”

Elsewhere, Barnet and Chase Farm Hospitals NHS Trust charge £4 all day for parking.

In a statement, West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust said the increase was due to the VAT increase and the increasing costs of providing and managing the car park.

Sarah Wiles, director of strategy and infrastructure, said: “Following the budget announcement several months ago, the Trust was faced with the difficult decision to either increase the subsidy provided from clinical budgets to support the cost of providing car parking, or to pass on the increase to service users. This decision was not taken lightly, but we have a responsibility to cover our costs, and make sure that money intended to look after patients is not subsidising the car parks.”

Ms Wiles added: “For patients and visitors who just need to be on the hospital sites for a short time, there are free 30 minute ‘drop-off’ parking spaces. We also offer a host of discounted and free parking rates for concessions and those on low incomes and for disabled ‘blue badge’ holders, as well as operating our regular intersite bus service to provide free, easier access for our patients, staff and visitors. Information on these concessions is widely available throughout all our hospitals and on our website”.