Kevin McGee stressed that any increase in the length of time the doors are kept open at the Euxton Lane unit would depend on securing the staff to run it safely.
However, it is the first time that there has been any suggestion of expanding the operating day at the facility since it shifted to part-time status in January 2017, after nine months during which it was closed completely.
That temporary – but longstanding – closure for much of the previous year was sparked by a shortage of middle grade doctors.
Chorley A&E is currently open between 8am and 8pm seven days a week.
Mr. McGee told the Post that Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (LTH) – where he took over as chief executive earlier this month – is “looking to do everything that we can to make the unit as robust as possible and to extend the opening hours in a way that’s safe”.
He added: “So long as we can do it safely and we’ve got the staffing to do it, why wouldn’t we?
“[Staffing] is the challenge that we face – we’re trying to make the jobs attractive and to rotate [them]. So we are trying to make the offer as [appealing] as we possibly can, so we can get the staff to support [the department].
“I suspect what we’d have to do if we made any change [would be to do it] in a way that was incremental – it wouldn’t be a big bang from 12 hours straight to 24.
“There is still a lot of work to do, but we need to make Chorley A&E as strong and viable a unit as possible,” said Mr. McGee.
He acknowledged that the long-term future of the facility would depend on a decision about where any proposed replacement for the Royal Preston might be built, but added: “We have no plans at all in terms of the closure of Chorley A&E.”
Mr. McGee’s comments mark the latest stage in a striking turnaround of the medium-term fortunes of the department. At the start of the year, a long-awaited formal public consultation into its future was poised to be approved by national NHS bosses.
As the Post previously revealed, that process was likely to present two main options – both of which would have brought about the closure of Chorley A&E and its replacement with one of two versions of a round-the-clock urgent treatment centre. Several groups of clinicians drafted in to assess the service had concluded back in 2019 that the facility was not “clinically viable”.
However, in February this year, the then health secretary, Matt Hancock, intervened and ordered that an option considering maintaining the current service must also be included in any consultation – a move that prompted the complete abandonment of the Our Health Our Care process, part of the work of which was concerned with finalising the future of Chorley A&E.
Chorley MP Sir Lindsay Hoyle welcomed that decision at the time – but said he would continue to push for a 24-hour reopening of the emergency department.
Responding to Mr. McGee’s latest remarks, Sir Lindsay Hoyle heralded “a new working relationship” with the trust.
“There is new vigour and support for Chorley A&E and we look forward to the roadmap that takes us to the full 24-hour opening and upgrading [of the service].
“My pledge has always been to support Chorley Hospital and its staff and that fight continues, but now at least we have people that listen – and not closed ears.”
Sir Lindsay has been lobbying the government for the reinstatement of a round-the clock A&E, in conjunction with neighbouring MPs Katherine Fletcher and Nigel Evans.
Ms. Fletcher, who represents South Ribble, said she looked forward to a full reopening of the unit “as soon as possible”.
“I regularly hear concerns from local residents about the delays in achieving 24-hour services at their valued local hospital,” she added.
Meanwhile, Ribble Valley member Nigel Evans said he was “delighted” by news of the commitment from LTH.
“It is vital that [the extension of opening hours] is done as quickly as possible in order that users of the service will know that they can finally, once again, get a full emergency service which they desperately need.”
Mr. McGee also said he believed that the entire Chorley site had a “bright future” as a centre for pre-planned treatment, with three new theatres due to open next month.
However, one of the leading figures in the Protect Chorley and South Ribble Hospital Campaign – which has staged weekly protests at the gates of Chorley Hospital since its A&E first shut over five years ago – says that until any details are agreed under the New Hospitals Programme to replace both the Royal Preston and Royal Lancaster hospitals with either one or two new facilities, any pronouncements about Chorley A&E amounted to paying “lip service” to it.
Jenny Hurley told the Post: “We always said that Chorley would be set up for elective surgery. While we agree with catching up with elective procedures, we have also always advocated that emergency surgeries should have provision in hospitals and always take priority.
“We’ve always called for both services to be kept, if not expanded – it’s no good creating space for elective surgery that reduces access to emergency surgery. Without having the service plans disclosed within the New Hospitals Programme, none of these issues can be guaranteed.
“It’s no good having a low-level emergency service at Chorley if high-level emergency services will be moved to a site further afield. An A&E at Chorley would then need to be 24 hours, seven days a week and include all children and all trauma services – not the service we currently have that is little more than a walk-in GP service,” Ms. Hurley said.
The Post understands that over the last 15 weeks, attendances at A&E in Preston increased by 17 percent compared to the same period in 2019 – but fell by around 14 percent at the Chorley unit.
Chorley A&E also closed for seven months last year after the onset of the pandemic in order to concentrate Covid care at the Royal Preston.