CONTROVERSIAL changes to a hospital which include the closure of an accident and emergency department will get under way this summer.

The changes will also mean that, from this summer, increasing numbers of patients from Darlington and Durham City who are due to have planned surgery will be asked to travel to Bishop Auckland General Hospital to have their operation, rather than at their local hospital.

Two months ago, health officials at NHS County Durham accepted proposals from County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust to centralise acute medical services on two rather than three hospital sites.

This decision was taken despite a campaign organised by the Save Our Hospital group which collected 16,000 signatures on a petition.

One of the main concerns of the campaigners was the loss of an accident and emergency unit, which will mean that anyone from the Bishop Auckland area needing treatment for a serious, life-threatening injury or illness will have to be taken to either Darlington Memorial or the Univer-sity Hospital of North Durham in Durham City.

The first change at Bishop Auckland General is likely to be the June opening of a new cataract centre for eye operations.

In July, it is expected that the existing A&E department, which already does not admit emergency trauma cases such as car accidents, will close and be replaced by an urgent care centre.

Managers believe the change will not affect about two-thirds of the patients who currently visit the A&E department at Bishop Auckland.

Trust officials have said the new urgent care centre will be open 24 hours a day, staffed by a mixture of hospital doctors, nurses and GPs.

A new planned surgery centre serving the entire county is due to be opened sometime this summer.