Labour kick-started its by-election campaign today with a visit from its health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth.

The shadow cabinet MP said the party was putting the NHS as the key issue in the Copeland by-election as he knocked on homes near the West Cumberland Hospital to gather support.

Mr Ashworth was in Copeland as Labour began its campaign to defend the seat following Jamie Reed's shock resignation last month.

Mr Reed announced he will be stepping down, at the end of January, to take a job at Sellafield. The Labour party will be announcing its by-election candidate on January 19.

The shadow health secretary visited the West Cumberland Hospital, as Labour stepped up the attack on the Government over controversial plans to downgrade its services, before speaking, alongside local activists, to nearby residents.

Mr Ashworth said: "This by-election is very important to the Labour party and we will not take anything for granted. We will fight for every vote. This area should be a national priority.''

Health, he said, was a "local issue which was part of a national issue.'' And he called Prime Minister Theresa May's refused to intervene to stop consultant-led maternity services being removed from Whitehaven "disgraceful.

"The plan to cut services at West Cumberland Hospital is not about improving care. It is nothing more than an exercise in balancing their books,'' Mr Ashworth said.

"To downgrade maternity services would see a thousand women a year travel over 40 miles to Carlisle to give birth. These are plans Theresa May herself has said she is prepared to see happen.

"This campaign will be a choice between allowing the Tories to strip NHS services away from Copeland, or sending them a message that it's unacceptable.

"Rural and remote communities deserve nothing less than a universally accessible, world class health care. The Tories are letting Copeland and West Cumbria down."

Mr Ashworth said Mr Reed had been a "champion for Copeland'' and they need to send in another "Labour fighter''.

The future of Copeland's healthcare looks set to be a major campaigning issue for any of the prospective by-election candidates.

A public consultation, organised by the government-backed Success Regime, came to a end on December 19, with a decision due in March.

The controversial proposals include downgrading maternity, children's and stroke services at the West Cumberland Hospital.

Copeland voted overwhelmingly for Leave in the EU referendum and Mr Reed won a majority of 2,564 over the Tories at the last election.

The Conservative Party has also been campaigning in the area over the Christmas period.

Around 100 people, including 10 MPs, gathered from across the country to leaflet drop across Copeland.

Dave Moore, leader of the Copeland Conservative party, said campaigners had also travelled from London to the area.

"We have now set up headquarters at the Egremont Conservative Club and will be campaigning on a daily basis,'' he said.

A Conservative spokesman said: "The Conservatives believe in the NHS and its values and are committed to securing high quality free healthcare for everyone. This Government has invested £10 billion into our National Health Service, funding the NHS’s own plan for the future, and across the country there are record numbers of doctors and nurses working in the NHS. This historic level of investment will mean a real difference for millions of patients and their families.

"Sustainability and Transformation Plans are local plans being developed by local doctors and communities – not politicians – so the NHS best suits the needs of local areas now and in the future.

"Local health chiefs haven’t made a decision yet about the future of health services in north, west and east Cumbria but we understand the concerns of those in rural areas about the provision of health services. Patients should receive high quality care, regardless of where they live."