THE age of the superhospital is over, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on his tour of North-East hospitals, which means more of a role for infirmaries in places like Darlington and Bishop Auckland.

And Shotley Bridge, he said, was on the brink of getting a new community hospital, although Bishop Auckland’s Accident and Emergency Department seems unlikely to reopen.

Of Shotley Bridge, he said: “I can come as close to saying yes without being able yet to say it. Clearly there’s a need and the work that the local team have done is very impressive. There’s still a question of where exactly it needs to be and on that I shall listen closely to the local NHS.”

He said that on his visit to Shotley Bridge, he discussed how to accelerate the construction so the new hospital, which will replace an ageing one in Consett, is ready for 2023.

Of Bishop Auckland, he said: “There have been more services moved into Bishop Auckland over the last six months.

“We have tried to split the NHS into green sites, which are Covid-free, and blue sites, where there may be Covid, so people going, for instance, for cancer treatment are safer, and Bishop Auckland has been a site where more and more of that elective activity can happen.

“I went to see the 24 hour urgent treatment centre and had a conversation about how we can enhance that service.”

Like Bishop Auckland, Shotley Bridge has had a pandemic bounce with oncology and chemotherapy treatments taking place there.

“I’ve always been a massive fan of community hospitals and putting services in the community where they are needed, and the coronavirus crisis, if anything, has shown us how important it is to have hospitals and NHS services that are part of the community,” he said.

“There was an era where more and more services were being centralised in huge locations. That era is over. The future of the NHS is getting services into the community, including community hospitals and the small and medium sized district general hospitals.

“Here we are at Darlington Memorial Hospital, a classic case of a medium-sized hospital that is performing incredibly well, serving its local community and over the last six months, we have doubled the size of A&E, and the size of the intensive care unit is in the middle of being doubled.”

The investment, he said, laid to rest and lingering doubts about the future of the Memorial’s A&E. He said: “There is no chance it will close. It is an incredibly important facility.”

North-West Durham MP Richard Holden said: “We have got £19m in the bank and we need at least another £10m. That is why it was so important to get Matt up here. I have been banging on his door to try to get that money over the line because that is what we need for this community hospital to get going.

“I want to see overall more services come here. I want to see beds here so if there are issues we can flex up to meet those.”

Darlington MP Peter Gibson said: “I visited the Memorial three weeks ago to see the expansion of the A&E and ITU and I went back to London and said to Matt that he had to come and see this incredible hospital. It is fantastic, and it is great to hear that the A&E is as safe as it can be.”

On his whistlestop tour of County Durham hospitals which just happen to be in the seats of newly elected Conservative MPs, Mr Hancock was able to reveal why when issuing video statements during lockdown, he was filmed in front of a signed Newcastle United shirt.

“I’m a Newcastle fan because my uncle Dave is a Geordie and when I was growing up in Chester, he used to take me every Christmas to the Man U/Newcastle game. That was in the era of Kevin Keegan, Alan Shearer, and the heady days when we got almost to the top of the table. It has its ups and downs being a Newcastle fan but it all stems from uncle Dave.”