PATIENTS have been reassured that their safe, quality care remains the “highest priority” after a hospital trust inspection raised concerns over serious medical incidents, staffing numbers and key targets being missed.

County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust, which operates Darlington Memorial Hospital and the University Hospital of North Durham, has been told it requires improvement - three years on from its last inspection report resulting in the same outcome.

In October 2015 trust chief executive Sue Jacques pledged to turn the trust into an outstanding one within two years.

But the Care Quality Commission (CQC) said while there had been improvements, the pace of change had been too slow and needed to be addressed.

It highlighted how there had been 11 so-called ‘never’ events between May 2016 and May last year – serious largely preventable patient safety incidents – and a further two after September.

The trust still did not have enough staff with the right qualifications, skills and training, particularly in urgent and emergency care.

Here key targets for caring for patients were being missed. The CQC said patients did not always get a face-to-face assessment within 15 minutes of arrival or registration, while those brought in by ambulance were not always handed over to the department within 30 minutes – and this was getting worse.

The trust breached the Department of Health’s target of 95 per cent of patients admitted, transferred or discharged within four hours of arrival at A&E 11 times between October 2016 and September last year.

Meanwhile, four patients trust-wide waited more than 12 hours in A&E until being formally admitted with the average wait time “consistently worse” than the English average.

Standards in surgery had also deteriorated from the last inspection and again required improvement.

Glenn Turp, regional director for the Royal College of Nursing, said: “Sadly, the report from the CQC doesn’t come as a surprise.

“It’s no secret that the Durham and Darlington Trust along with most others across England have been struggling for some time.

“The last 12 months has been incredibly tough, with hospitals facing a combination of increasing patient demand whilst being starved of the resources and staff they need.”

Mr Turp said the NHS was continuing to “haemorrhage” nurses at a time when demand for health and care services had never been higher and said the Government had to to address the “looming crisis” in the sector by recruiting more nurses and rewarding their hard work and commitment by improving their pay.

He said staff working for the trust – who the CQC declared were delivering ‘good’ care, treating patients with compassion, dignity and respect - and elsewhere should be praised for continuing to work under stressful conditions.

The CQC report, which followed an unannounced inspection last autumn, said there was a lack of risk assessments for patients with mental health needs, while medical and nursing records were not being stored securely in some areas.

There had been improvements, however, in terms of the cleanliness of wards and departments. There was effective working across different departments to secure good outcomes and seamless care for patients.

Managers also investigated incidents quickly and shared lessons learned and changes in practice with staff, who could raise concerns and felt listened to.

The CQC said there was evidence of improvements following complaints from members of the public.

Praise was also reserved for a newly formed senior leadership team in the maternity service, which was described as having a real drive to improve quality.

A trust spokeswoman said: “We are pleased that the CQC report recognises the many improvements made since our previous inspection in 2015 against a context of significant challenges for the NHS.

"“We continue to strive to receive a ‘good’ rating overall. We are fully committed to a continuous improvement journey and indeed much work has already taken place since the inspection last autumn.

“Our patients should be assured that their safe, quality care and experience remain our highest priority. This is recognised both through the trust’s consistent ‘good’ rating for caring as well as the trust’s ‘good’ rating for being well-led.

“We are proud of our workforce and know there is a strong commitment and dedication running through the trust to deliver on the improvements already made and beyond.”