The Friarage Hospital has seen a huge reduction in services in recent years amid financial and staffing concerns. Hannah Chapman reports.

IT was on a scorching hot Saturday afternoon back in May 2012 that it became clear just how much love the North Yorkshire community has for the Friarage Hospital. More than 4,000 people gathered in the grounds of Northallerton’s County Hall before marching through the town to protest about plans for a major downgrade of maternity and paediatric services. “Hands off our Friarage” read the banner at the front as the long line of campaigners snaked its way back right up the High Street and beyond to South Parade.

Despite that outpouring of support for the hospital, the services were scaled back in 2014. Twenty-four hour consultant-led paediatric services were replaced with a short-stay assessment unit. Consultant-led maternity services ended in favour of a midwifery-led service, and the care of pregnant women and children with complex conditions moved to James Cook University Hospital, in Middlesbrough, or Darlington Memorial Hospital.

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Hambleton, Richmondshire and Whitby Clinical Commissioning Group said it had to make the decision because the previous service was unsustainable and unsafe as it did not have enough doctors with the range of skills required. Staffing shortages have long been a problem for the Friarage, with officials finding it hard to fill senior vacancies, particularly for consultants.

In November, Councillor Jim Clark, chairman of North Yorkshire County Council’s scrutiny of health committee, voiced concerns about an apparent impasse between hospital consultants and NHS officials in the wider region over staffing, adding that uncertainty had been heightened by bosses announcing a consultation to changes to emergency medicine and anaesthesia at the Friarage would be delayed until after the local elections in May.

Cllr Clark, who has led the watchdog for nine years, said: “I see an interesting future for the Friarage, I would just like to know what it is. There seems to be a debate going on between those that manage the James Cook and the integrated care system and the consultants. Until they resolve the problems internally at the NHS it is very difficult for us to comment.”

THE Friarage Hospital dates back to the late 1930s when eight wooden huts were set up on the site of a former Carmelite priory, initially to treat people in the event of Teesside suffering heavy Second World War bombing. By 1940, eight wards and other buildings had been added, and the first occupants were soldiers returning from Dunkirk.

It became an RAF hospital in 1943, and survived repeated fears for its future, including in 1947 and 1968.

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The Friarage in the 1950s

The Friarage became independent in 1974, and underwent major rebuilding work in 1982 when wartime sections were demolished. A three-storey complex, including five wards with 140 beds for acute cases, accident and emergency and x-ray departments, a maternity unit with 31 beds, and a Special Care Baby Unit opened in 1987, signalling the closure of The Mount maternity unit.

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Brigadier Johnny Wardle surveys the demolition work of the old wards at the Friarage Hospital in 2001 Picture: RICHARD DOUGHTY

A 2002 merger between Northallerton Health Trust and South Tees Hospital Trust was greeted with dismay, sparking yet more fears for Friarage services, but in 2006, revamped paediatric and women’s health units and pathology and pharmacy laboratories were completed. Then-Richmond MP William Hague opened a revamped accident and emergency department in 2010, but just months later a major reorganisation was announced. The reduction of children’s and maternity services was proposed – the plan which sparked the 2012 public demonstrations.

IT has been far from quiet for the Friarage in the seven years since. Last year its mental health inpatient beds closed, despite concerns about travel distances to the alternatives at Darlington or Middlesbrough and the accessibility of services in the community.

In December, there was some much-needed good news with the opening of the Sir Robert Ogden Cancer Centre, a multi-million pound development four years in the planning.

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The unit has six consulting rooms, treatment rooms for minor procedures, a family room, complementary therapies room, and a large, open-plan chemotherapy room.

In the wake of today's announcement about a temporary downgrade of some departments, including A&E, it looks unlikely that the Friarage will see an investment of this scale again, even if staffing improves to a level which allows services to be restored. No doubt the community which rallied against the cutbacks on that hot day in 2012 will be preparing to march once more.