THE one-off move into Bishop Auckland's long awaited new hospital has been finally completed four weeks ahead of the original schedule.

A three-week transfer of staff, patients and equipment into the £67m privately-funded development ended when the last group from Tindale Crescent made the switch at the weekend.

At one time hospital bosses had hoped the building would be up and running as early as April, but the opening was postponed for modifications to electrical and mechanical services after two workers received severe electrical shocks.

And there are concerns about the withdrawal of local services following a report by London surgeon Professor Ara Darzi proposing the integration of all County Durham's three acute hospitals. Public consultation on his plans ends this month.

Inside the 347-bed new building more than £6m has been spent on equipment and furniture. Modern facilities include the first digital radiography room in the country.

A state-of-the-art MRI scanner replaces the previous visiting service, while there is also a purpose-built day surgery and endoscopy suite.

John Saxby, chief executive of the South Durham Health Care NHS Trust, said: "At long last our staff are able to care for their patients in an environment that is fit for the 21st Century.

"Over the last three weeks the moves have gone very well thanks to the hard work of everyone involved.

"Understandably, however, for a move of this size and complexity we have experienced some minor teething problems and we would like to thank anyone who has been affected by these problems for their understanding.

"There may be further slight hitches over the next few weeks as we settle into our new building, but we will continue to address any problems as they occur."

The new hospital was developed under the Government's Private Finance Initiative. Building started in June 1999. Now work in under way to modernise the remaining block, to demolish the old wards and create extra car parking.