THE planned merger of the Royal Bournemouth and Christchurch and Poole hospitals trusts has been delayed to allow them to focus on responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

Their joint chief executive, Debbie Fleming, said carrying on with the July 1 deadline would have taken away clinicians from their frontline work which would have been “very wrong”.

At the same time she also announced that the planned name of East Dorset Hospitals NHS Trust had been changed to University Hospitals Dorset NHS Foundation Trust following recognition of the partnership with Bournemouth University.

The merger of the east of the county’s two main NHS organisations has been proposed in a bid to both cut costs and improve treatment.

As part of it, Royal Bournemouth Hospital is due to become a major emergency centre with Poole Hospital focusing on planned care.

This would involve substantial work at both sites and planning applications for extensions have been submitted.

But the move has attracted strong opposition with concerns that downgrading the A&E department at Poole Hospital to an urgent treatment centre would negatively affect treatment for people living further from Bournemouth.

The trusts and their staff have said increased specialisation would improve care.

Final work on the merger was due to be completed by July 1 but Ms Fleming has said this will now be pushed back.

“In discussions with our regulator, we have agreed our priority for the time being must be to deal with the impact of Covid-19,” she said.

“It would be very wrong to take our clinicians away from the front-line to complete the final merger processes, given this challenging and unprecedented situation.

“Therefore, while we shall continue to progress our merger work behind the scenes, we now know that we will not be able to complete this transaction by July 1, as hoped.”

She said this was a delay rather than a change in direction.

She also announced the new trust would no longer be called East Dorset Hospitals NHS Trust - a name that was only announced in December.

It will now be called University Hospitals Dorset NHS Foundation Trust instead.

Ms Fleming added: “We have in recent months and weeks been discussing the prospect of this new, merged organisation attaining university hospital status with our partners at Bournemouth University.

“We are pleased to confirm that in recognition of the extremely close working relationship the hospitals and the university has enjoyed over many years, we have agreed with the university that from the outset we will have university hospital status.”

No new date has been set for when the merger might be completed.