WILLIAM HAGUE has pledged to continue pressing the Health Secretary to maintain key services at a general hospital after leading a massive protest march involving about 4,000 people.

The Foreign Secretary and Richmondshire MP would appear to be at loggerheads with Cabinet colleague Andrew Lansley. Mr Hague told The Northern Echo he has held four meetings with Mr Lansley, during which he said he has stressed that recommendations to downgrade maternity and paediatric services at the Friarage Hospital, Northallerton, were “unacceptable”.

Mr Hague said his Cabinet colleague wanted details about why the hospital – which serves 122,000 residents spread across a rural area of 1,000 square miles – should be treated as a unique case and have its services preserved.

Mr Hague said: “Andrew Lansley wants us to see if there are alternative solutions.”

Organisers of the protest said more than 2,000 people signalled their anger at NHS bosses at the rally outside county hall, with about 2,000 more joining the protest march through town. Richmondshire District Council leader John Blackie, who co-organised the rally, described the turnout as “fantastic” and said families who had been unable to attend Saturday’s rally because of the heat, joined the march to send “a very loud, very clear and compelling message to the NHS to maintain services”.

Following discussions with Mr Hague, Coun Blackie said he believed the decision over the services’ future would be influenced by Cabinet politicians, as well as by the huge grassroots support.

“There is a will now within the NHS and a will from politicians at the highest level that a solution must be found,” he said. “William Hague is not going to put his reputation on the line unless he thinks the arguments we are putting forward are strong.”

Mr Hague, who was warmly welcomed by the majority of protestors, delivered a passionate defence of the hospital’s services from a balcony at County Hall, saying he regularly received letters from constituents detailing outstanding treatment there.

He was cheered after calling for the NHS to not only abandon the proposals, but to set out “a detailed, clear and sincere vision for the hospital’s future” before telling protestors it was their right to have their babies born in Yorkshire.

Representing the Public and Commercial Services Union, Lorna Garrick, of Scotton, near Catterick Garrison, was among a small group of protesters who said they wished Mr Hague had not turned up.

She said: “I would rather he admitted that the cuts were causing this to happen. It is a PR exercise for him.”

Officials at the 200-bed hospital, which takes in the North York Moors and the Yorkshire dales to the borders of York and Darlington, are proposing to downgrade inpatient children’s services to a day unit and turn a full-service maternity department into a midwife- led birthing unit. It followed a visit by independent experts who warned the current arrangements were unsustainable because of acute medical staffing shortages.

Without consultant paediatricians on duty at weekends and evenings, only straightforward births could be handled by a new midwife-led maternity unit, leading to a likely fall in deliveries from about 1,200 a year to about 500.

Mothers at higher risk or who prefer a consultant-led unit would have to go to either The James Cook University Hospital, in Middlesbrough, Darlington Memorial Hospital, Harrogate District Hospital or York Hospital.

The rally was told 3,100 residents had joined a Facebook group fighting the proposals and more than 10,000 people – including more than 700 from the area surrounding Marske, near Richmond – had signed a petition calling for the rentention of services.

Other speakers included mother-of-six Amanda Livingstone- Owen, of Ravenseat, Upper Swaledale, who said: “If we are to be expected to travel 70 miles to James Cook hospital, birth plans will have to involve a lot of road numbers.”

Lisa Nelson, of the National Childbirth Trust, said that while the families of children requiring inpatient services would be hardest hit by the proposed changes, a midwifeled maternity service would mean “terrifying ordeals” for women requiring emergency transfers.

Despite it being a protest event, there was a carnivallike atmosphere, with performances by Northallerton Silver Band, marchers banging drums and the town’s Saturday market came to a standstill as the High Street filled with marchers.

Mr Hague appeared relaxed as he chatted with constituents during the march, before posing for photographs and eating an ice cream when campaigners arrived at Bullamoor Memorial Park.

Emily Durkin, of Colburn, near Catterick, said she had attended with her children, Marcus, five, and Lyndon, two, who she gave birth to at the Friarage, to tell decisionmakers moving the services to Middlesbrough would cause distress.

Susan Stead and Brenda Sharpe, of Northallerton, who worked as healthcare assistants at the Friarage for 38 and 35 years respectively, said they were appalled by the plans.

Mrs Sharpe said: “It seems as though they are going back to the 1800s and everyone will have to have their babies at home.”

Disabled Michael Pearson, 51, of Romanby, who took part in the rally in his wheelchair, said he feared the removal of services at the Friarage would precede many others until the hospital closed completely in about four years.