WHITEHAVEN'S A&E could close next year unless hospital medics can be recruited. 

In a shock announcement this week, A&E staff were told their department could be downgraded to a minor injuries unit. 

And it is unclear what would happen to the future of other hospital services, such as maternity, if this does happen.

The news has angered local MP Jamie Reed who told The Whitehaven News yesterday: "This is a despicable tactic designed to give the impression of a done deal when nothing could be further from the truth."

It is understood the West Cumberland Hospital's A&E is under threat of being stripped to offer minor injuries only from around 9am-9pm. 

And that all emergencies would therefore have to go to the Cumberland Infirmary - with ambulances bypassing West Cumberland Hospital - and staff would be required to travel to Carlisle to retain their trauma skills. 

Hospital chiefs says this would be "worst case scenario" but that they have to plan for "every eventuality". Bosses say they are committed to recruiting staff - both for A&E and acute medicine.

The news follows a threat earlier this year from three of West Cumberland Hospital's A&E consultants that they would walk out collectively in August next year unless their concerns regarding safety are addressed. 

Hospital campaigner Siobhan Gearing said: “As a parent I fear my children’s lives will be at risk if our A&E service is downgraded to minor injuries only - the very idea of downgrading A&E is ludicrous.”

Their key worry is that there is insufficient specialist out-of-hours back up for patients in the medical and surgical departments to provide a safe and sustainable acute service.

The latest report of inspectors from the Care Quality Commission highlighted how North Cumbria University Hospitals Trust - which runs both hospitals - faces chronic staff shortages, with medical care at the West Cumberland Hospital rated as inadequate as a result.

Dr Jeremy Rushmer, Trust medical director, said: "The trust board very much supports a safe and viable service for the long-term future at West Cumberland Hospital. Our A&E consultants at WCH formally expressed their concerns to the board in May about the long term sustainability of acute medicine. We share these concerns as does the Chief Inspector of Hospitals, who has rated the safety of acute medicine at the hospital as 'inadequate' since July 2014. 

"We cannot ignore this situation and we all share a common goal which is to ensure a safe and sustainable service for patients in West Cumbria. We are doing all we can to recruit to key vacancies including our innovative partnership with the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan). Whilst our consultants have not formally resigned, it is our duty to plan for all eventualities and all possible worst case scenarios and this means we must have open discussions with our clinical teams such as the discussion the A&E team had at their meeting on Friday."

Dr Rushmer added that the Trust was working with all health organisations as part of the 'success regime' to develop a clinical strategy within the next six months. 

Copeland MP Jamie Reed said: "Just days after being told by the most senior leaders in NHS England that their plans were unacceptable, it beggars belief that the North Cumbria Trust should brief staff at A&E in this way. 

"During Simon Stevens’ (NHS chief executive) recent visit, those hospital consultants chosen by the Trust to attend the meeting volunteered the 'minor injuries' nonsense as a 'Plan B' based upon a scenario whereby they couldn't recruit. I made it clear that I didn't accept this scenario."

He added: "It is critically important to understand that Simon Stevens and his team - including Sir Mike Richards HM Chief Inspector of Hospitals and Sir Neil Mackay who is leading our local Success Regime - told the trust and those consultants present that their 'plan B' was unacceptable."