THE wife of former England cricketer Ian Botham last night accused health chiefs of not having the guts to consult over plans to close a hospital unit for cancer patients.

Kathy Botham was speaking at a public meeting called by protestors who want to stop the closure of the haematology unit at Darlington Memorial Hospital.

Mrs Botham, who was patron of a fund which raised £300,000 to open the unit 16 years ago, questioned why County Durham and Darlington Acute Hospitals NHS Trust had not put the proposal to those who raised the cash.

"Nobody has had the guts to come and speak to us," she said. "You are the people who raised an awful lot of money."

The trust wants to close the six-bed unit at Darlington and merge it with services at Bishop Auckland General Hospital.

It was originally opened so that leukaemia patients from Darlington did not have to travel to Newcastle for in-patient treatment.

Allene Norris, who started the fundraising campaign after the death of her husband David, told the meeting at Darlington College of Technology: "I think it would have been nice if somebody had had the decency to say this is being mooted. I think it's such a damn cheek to do it without any consultation whatsoever. I'm totally, obviously, against it."

A former sister from the unit, who asked not to be named, said it was vital that acute leukaemia patients were treated close to other acute services such as gynaecology - which they would not be at Bishop Auckland.

"The main thing is it was raised by the people of Darlington for Darlington," she said.

"You can't take that money."

A report given to County Durham and Darlington Acute Hospitals NHS Trust's board yesterday morning said the merger was needed because the two units are each run by only one consultant - making holidays and other time off difficult to cover.

A decision on the closure, which will not affect out-patient or day care provision at either hospital, is likely to be made in April.

The trust's chief executive, John Saxby, will be questioned on the plan at a health scrutiny committee meeting on March 7 at 1pm at Darlington Town Hall.