NHS bosses have confirmed key services such as accident and emergency will be retained for the foreseeable future at Darlington Memorial Hospital.
Campaigners said they were relieved proposals to set up two specialist emergency hospitals – The James Cook University Hospital, in Middlesbrough, and either the Darlington Memorial or North Tees Hospital, in Stockton – had been dropped.
A spokeswoman for NHS North of England Commissioning Support said the plans, concerns about which surfaced in 2015 and also included major changes to maternity and paediatric services, had been abandoned after receiving “extremely helpful” feedback.
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The announcement follows concerns mounting over the future of services at Darlington Memorial Hospital, after months of silence from the NHS officials.
A meeting of North Yorkshire County Council on Wednesday heard Alan Foster, sustainability and transformation partnerships lead for the North East and North Cumbria, had told councillors in January the proposals had been dropped and had pledged to make a public statement in February.
The authority’s public health executive member Councillor Caroline Dickinson and health campaigner Councillor John Blackie told the meeting they feared the NHS was backtracking after repeated requests for confirmation of the decision received no response.
In a statement, Mr Foster stopped short of guaranteeing the services would always remain.
He said: “I’d like to reassure elected members that the position for the NHS has not changed and over the last few months NHS bodies have been working across organisational boundaries in order to respond to the valuable feedback that was gained from the Better Health Programme.
“Local clinicians are currently working across organisational boundaries to build consensus on the right models of hospital, community and primary care for the increasing number of people who have long-term health conditions and to support the delivery of local specialist emergency care where possible and appropriate.”
Darlington MP Jenny Chapman said she believed NHS bosses had concluded cutting services at the hospital would be too difficult.
She said the SOS Darlington campaign, launched by midwife Lesley Brown in 2015 and supported by thousands of residents, had highlighted how passionately people from a wide area felt about retaining the services at Darlington Memorial Hospital.
She said: “It proves local campaigns do make a difference. Had we not made a stand changes would have happened over time, if not in a big bang way.
“The A&E should never have been put in that position, it was a stupid proposal. It should never have seen the light of day.”
Cllr Blackie added the NHS statement was “a little short of the mark”, as people wanted “unequivocal confirmation that these services will continue at all three sites for the foreseeable future”.
He said: “However, it does appear that following robust and continuing pressure from the public, local politicians including myself, and local MPs there is a determination within the NHS to maintain the three hospital model for 24/7 emergency care.”
The NHS North of England Commissioning Support spokeswoman said it remained focused on delivering a programme of transformation to improve the health outcomes of the populations it served.
Key elements of its revised plan to make NHS provision more robust in the region include a drive to get NHS organisations “to work better together, rather than competing against each other”, developing clinical networks and sharing expertise.
The spokeswoman said while there would be a drive to ensure NHS organisations collaborate on addressing staffing shortages, if any services became “vulnerable” due to a lack of staff, the situation could change and residents would be informed.
She added: “It remains that we must make services more robust – particularly given workforce pressures – and reduce unwarranted variations in the quality of care.
“In striving to achieve this, it is possible that some changes and improvements may be necessary to services currently provided from different hospital sites. However, please be assured that any such changes would be considered as part of the wider network of provision outlined above and, where applicable, to a formal process of engagement and consultation.
“While the Better Health Programme was initially driven by potential changes to hospital services at Darlington, Middlesbrough and Stockton, specifically for the smaller number of patients deemed to be high risk or requiring specialist emergency care, it was also influenced by an ambition to transform care so more people could stay safely independent at home rather than needing hospital-based care.
“More care outside hospital is now in place with more planned, to help ensure people will only need to go to hospital if their care cannot be provided safely in the community.”