DISMAYED campaigners battling to ensure the future of the Friarage Hospital are calling for a rethink over cuts in critical care as they clashed with health bosses over staff numbers amid fears lives will be put at risk.

One employee told the Northern Echo up to 80 anaesthetists and 24 A and E consultants are employed by South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and called for a rota to ensure cover at the Friarage. "We are baffled by these cuts, there has to be more information," they added.

The Trust say that number includes part time and military staff. They insisted they are doing all they can faced with fewer doctors locally with generalist skills as training becomes more specialised and fewer are prepared to work at smaller hospitals like the Friarage.

In the meantime there are calls for a mass demonstration in Northallerton, similar to one held by thousands of people in 2014 when the maternity unit was downgraded. Campaigner Holly Wilkinson, whose online petitions to "Save the Friarage" have now been signed by over 3,500 people, is calling on fellow supporters to help arrange a protest demonstration to show the strength of feeling.

She added: "We are concerned lives will be put at risk. As for the staff shortage it’s a total fallacy. The Friarage hospital has all the facilities but the South Tees NHS Foundation Trust has not bothered to encourage staff to work there, leading me to believe it is closure by stealth, resulting in all services being sent to James Cook."

MP’s are also challenging the decision. Thirsk and Malton MP Kevin Hollinrake said they are writing to the Trust to oppose the downgrade and challenge efforts made to recruit new doctors. He added: "Our concern is that these changes could be the thin end of the wedge and lead to the withdrawal of more services."

Richmond MP Rishi Sunak said: "I have been told the doctors have been offered substantial incentives to work at the Friarage permanently but have chosen not to accept. I have also been told that there is no way the Trust can contractually roster these doctors to work permanently across both sites. A large part of this is to do with changes in clinical guidance from the Royal College of Emergency Medicine requiring more specialist emergency care consultants to work in critical care wards. I will continue to fight for an outcome which ensures a sustainable future for our much-loved local hospital."

A spokesperson for the Trust said: "We are making these changes to critical care in order to provide safe services to all our patients. We are committed to developing a safe and sustainable future for the hospital and, working with the CCG, we’ll consult the public so that we can agree a longer term future. We have a shortage of specialist staff to support critical care, which includes anaesthetists, at James Cook as well as the Friarage. These numbers of consultants include staff who are part time and who don’t work for the Trust, as some work for the military.

"The workforce problems in recruiting anaesthetists are local, regional and national. Nationally only 42 per cent of training spaces are filled for anaesthetists, as medical students choose to train in other disciplines."