FEARS that the closure of an accident and emergency unit would put pressure on neighbouring hospitals appear to be ill-founded, according to figures.

In October last year, NHS officials controversially downgraded the A&E unit at Bishop Auckland General Hospital to an urgent care centre, despite local protests.

Campaigners predicted that A&E units at hospitals in Durham City and Darlington would struggle to cope with the extra caseload.

But statistics published by the County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust show the other two A&E units have so far coped comfortably with the demand.

In fact, the figures show that fewer than expected patients from the Bishop Auckland area were seen at the University Hospital of North Durham, while numbers who attended at Darlington Memorial Hospital were fractionally below what was predicted.

The figures show that between October 1 and June 31, 4,262 patients were seen at Darlington who had Bishop Auckland area postcodes, four fewer than the projected 4,266.

At Durham City, 1,172 patients were seen during this period compared with a projected figure of 3,411.

Comparing figures for June last year with the corresponding month this year begs the question of where hundreds of people who previously attended the A&E department at Bishop Auckland went for treatment.

In June last year, a total of 10,862 attended the three A&E departments, including 2,426 at Bishop Auckland.

But a year later, during the same month, the total number of patients who attended the two remaining A&E units totalled 9,979 – 883 fewer than the previous year.

Trust officials do not know why this is the case, but point to the fact that the urgent care centre which replaced the A&E department at Bishop Auckland last October sees about 1,500 walk-in patients a month.

Since the closure of the Bishop Auckland A&E unit, the County Durham and Darlington trust has maintained an impressive record in terms of meeting the previous Government’s target of seeing patients in A&E within four hours.

The trust exceeded the target of seeing 98 per cent of patients within four hours in the three months after the changes last October.

It only failed – fractionally – to meet the target in two out of the nine months since October.

A spokesman for the trust said: “The key message is that we are managing the increased workload and doing well on the four-hour waits.

We have also increased A&E capacity at Darlington and Durham.”