THE first deliveries of equipment arrived at Bishop Auckland's long-awaited new hospital in time for Christmas.

The main building work was completed last week and the final phase of the £67m 347-bed redevelopment is now under way.

Over the next few months, suppliers will be delivering £6m worth of equipment and furniture, including hundreds of electrically operated beds and items for the country's first digital radiography room.

Staff on individual wards and departments are also preparing to start moving into the new hospital at the beginning of April.

All transfers are expected to be completed by the end of May.

Managers are fine tuning details and timings so that services to patients at the hospital will be disrupted as little as possible.

They are also preparing information leaflets and drawing up inventories of items to be moved.

John Saxby, chief executive of the South Durham Healthcare NHS Trust, said: "This really is a wonderful Christmas present for local people and hospital staff, who both need and deserve this new facility.

"With the main building work complete, we are at last entering the final straight and in less than four months will start moving into our brand new hospital."

Keith Abel, general manager of Criterion Healthcare, said: "We are now about to start a very hectic phase in the delivery of the new hospital.

"Our building contractor, Shepherd Construction, has done a superb job and the external appearance of the hospital has brought numerous favourable comments from many quarters.

"Internally, it is equally impressive and we look forward to the equipping, staff familiarisation, general public liaison and, finally, the moves, which all require meticulous planning and close co-operation over the next few months."

Once services have moved into the new building, work will continue to refurbish the remaining block, to demolish the old hospital wards and create more car parking spaces.

The hospital was redeveloped under the Government's Private Finance Initiative and the trust's partners are Criterion Healthcare, which is a consortium made up of Charterhouse Project Equity Investments Ltd, ISS Mediclean, Shepherd Securities Ltd and Healthcare Development Advisory Ltd