NHS bosses behind the “temporary” closure of a general hospital’s accident and emergency department and intensive care beds have revealed the services replacing them are part of a long-held ambition.
Leading South Tees NHS Trust doctors have described mounting calls to maintain the key services at the Friarage Hospital in Northallerton as misguided and provided reassurances for the first time in almost a year that acute services at hospitals across the Tees Valley would be maintained.
North Yorkshire County Council’s scrutiny of health committee heard NHS bosses outline how the accident and emergency service would be changed to a 24/7 Urgent Treatment Centre from March 27 due to shortages in senior clinical and consultant cover, particularly in anaesthesia.
The changes will mean more than 2,000 patients a year who need speciality and critical care being sent for care in the Tees Valley.
Members were told the changes were part of plans that doctors and nurses at the Friarage Hospital had spent years developing and signalled a bright future for some acute services at the Northallerton infirmary.
The trust’s medical director Adrian Clements said there was “no good reason” why some North Yorkshire patients were having to travel to Middlesbrough for surgical care and in future could be treated at the Friarage instead.
He said: “We will maintain an acute hospital that does not rely on its 24/7 anaesthetic cover. So this will be a game-changer for the site.
“The threat over the Friarage site has traditionally been due to national recruitment issues over anaesthetists. We believe we have developed a model that will not be as reliant on anaesthetic care and cover and we will be able to maintain an acute footprint at the Friarage Hospital, giving local access to the vast majority of patients.”
Mr Clements, who is leading plans to transform urgent and emergency care across the Tees Valley and Hambleton, Richmondshire and Whitby, said the changes proposed for the Friarage site would “gel very well with the solutions that are being proposed” for hospitals in Darlington, Middlesbrough and Stockton.
His statement comes almost a year after NHS bosses confirmed plans to cut key services such as accident and emergency at either the Darlington Memorial or North Tees Hospital had been dropped.
Mr Clements said: “I have been a very strong advocate of the Darlington site. I see it as important to the population of North Yorkshire and I see it as important in supporting these changes.”
He said forthcoming proposals for the Tees Valley would “deliver a much better level of access and don’t talk about site closures or significant changes in services like has previously been discussed”.
Councillor John Blackie told the NHS bosses how a Facebook Save Our Friarage Campaign had attracted 6,000 signatures in less than two weeks as residents did not want the “temporary” closure to become permanent.
Cllr Blackie added: “This is not temporary. This is transitional. We are never ever going to get back to where we were and that to me and many people in the massive catchment area served by the Friarage is very sad news indeed.”
The veteran health campaigner also highlighted that NHS bosses had been aware of the lack of clinicians at the Friarage for some years and questioned whether they had concentrated their efforts on finding staff.
Mr Clements did not directly respond to Cllr Blackie’s question, but said the proposals had “absolute consensus from the clinicians who work at the Friarage Hospital”.
He added: “We believe, that through an unbelievable amount of effort and hard work by the doctors and nurses at the Friarage they have come up with a solution that fulfils the vast majority of needs of the population in a sustainable way.
“What we have not been good at is getting that story across to allow 4,000 people
to sign a petition to make us do something that isn’t possible. I see the Facebook page and think ‘that isn’t possible’.
“We are trying our absolute best to save the Friarage Hospital and give it a sustainable future.”