THE merger of two Cumbrian health trusts is on track to go ahead this autumn - at the same time as mental health services are taken over.

In the past few weeks, regional health chiefs have assessed plans to formally join up North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust and the Cumbria Partnership NHS Foundation Trust.

If approved, it would see all of the north and west Cumbria's hospital and community health services run by the same organisation.

Before it can go ahead, it needs backing from NHS chiefs, regionally and nationally.

Stephen Eames, who is already chief executive of both trusts, provided an update at the North Cumbria Health and Care System Leadership Board meeting, held in Penrith yesterday. He described the initial feedback as "encouraging".

The two trusts are now drawing up detailed plans to show exactly what benefits a merger would bring to the local population.

"We are expecting that it (the merger) will happen, I think in October," said Mr Eames.

"I want to remind everyone that the merger is simply a step towards integrating the vision we have here."

He said the next deadline is in May, when the plans will be looked at in depth by the NHS.

"We will be giving a bit more detail about the development of our strategy, and obviously determine how that merger is going to improve the quality of services for patients," he added.

The merger is likely to coincide with the transfer of the area's mental health services to a bigger north east trust.

At present the Cumbria Partnership runs mental health and learning disability services across the county.

But, following a series of consultation meetings last year, the trust agreed to transfer them to a bigger, specialist provider.

Services in the north and west of the county are likely to be taken over by Northumberland Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust (NTW).

It currently provides services to more than 1.5 million people in Northumberland, North Tyneside, Newcastle, Gateshead, South Tyneside and Sunderland, and is rated "outstanding" by the Care Quality Commission.

The takeover of the north Cumbria's mental health services has taken a major step forward, with the NTW board of directors backing the business case at their meeting last week.

Mr Eames told the System Leadership Board: "We fully expect it to be going live on October 1."

Local health chiefs say the transfer will provide the best outcome for patients and improve the quality of services long term.

As part of the deal, NTW have asked for a seat around the table at future discussions about healthcare in north Cumbria.

Mr Eames said chairman Ken Jarrold and chief executive John Lawlor would be invited to attend the next System Leadership Board.

"Clearly we will have a new provider on the patch from October and for obvious reasons, that provider needs to be part of the family here," explained Mr Eames.

Robin Talbot, chairman of the Cumbria Partnership and North Cumbria trusts, said he had met with Mr Jarrold this week.

"He was keen to come across and find out more about north Cumbria. There were no surprises.

"I know there's an enthusiasm to meet staff and stakeholders," he said.

Les Blacklock, a staff governor of the Cumbria Partnership, expressed concern during the meeting about the impact the pending changes are having on staff. He said the uncertainty facing mental health staff could have a negative effect on their own wellbeing.

The future of mental health services in the south of the county is still subject to further discussion.