FRUSTRATIONS over health services in a rural community were laid bare at a packed public meeting about changes to urgent care.

Bishop Auckland MP Helen Goodman organised the event to allow residents to grill health chiefs over plans to centralise out-of-hours services at Richardson Hospital in Barnard Castle.

They have said some of the nine ‘hubs’ across the area, which provided additional appointments with patients directed through the NHS 111 phone service, were ‘significantly underused’.

Some residents at the meeting in Barnard Castle Methodist Church on Tuesday said they were not even aware the service existed.

Jane Peat, one of around 40 people in the church hall, said: “They have not been offered to people living locally.

“I don’t think that they knew it was available. If they did it would have been used. It is our hospital and we have had it for years.

“The whole of Barnard Castle feels very strongly about this. They would find it very convenient.

“If you are quite old you don’t want to be travelling, especially if you are unwell and they do not always have someone available to provide transport so the fact that it is local is extremely important.”

In May, the Durham Dales, Easington and Sedgefield’s Clinical Commissioning Group backed plans for an overhaul of seven-day services, which led to the removal of hubs in Barnard Castle and Stanhope.

The closed centre to Teesdale is now in Bishop Auckland.

Resident Jane Hackworth-Young said: “I have not found one person who has been able to access this service.

“This has been a consultation where a decision has been made to close the 111 service before the consultation and they are trying to say it is not used. It is disgraceful.”

During what was, at times, a heated debate, the panel, which included Helen Goodman, representatives from the CCG, North East Ambulance Service and County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust, heard personal accounts from people who had tried to access the service.

Reverend John Moore said: “There seems to be a world of difference from what you understand and what the people of Barnard Castle understand.”

Sarah Burns, director of commissioning, strategy and delivery at the CCG, said: “We recognise that travel can be difficult when people are frail or elderly and that is why a better way of using the resource is to have staff coming to patients rather than patients travelling to centres.

“If you are frail or elderly and if you contact a centre from October they will determine whether you will get a home visit instead of having to go to Bishop Auckland.”

Assessment is based on the ‘Directory of Service’ to determine the most appropriate service for patients.

Sue Tucker, strategic head of the emergency operations centre for NEAS, said: “The first people you will talk to are highly trained healthcare advisors who will do a symptomatic assessment. We have a nationally approved clinical assessment tool that can come up with the skill level required for any given scenario.”