Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has referred a decision to permanently close the inpatient ward at Rothbury Community Hospital to independent experts.
The Independent Reconfiguration Panel, a non-departmental public health body, will make an initial assessment of the plans to shut 12 beds at the Coquetdale facility.
The Panel has been asked to respond to the Secretary of State by June 7 and can recommend that the Health Secretary overturns the proposals.
The future of the inpatient ward had been placed into the hands of Mr Hunt after Northumberland County Council’s health and wellbeing overview and scrutiny committee referred the matter to him in October.
A month previously, the joint executive board of the Northumberland Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) voted unanimously in favour of permanently closing the ward and shaping the existing services around a Health and Wellbeing Centre at the hospital.
The beds were shut in September 2016 – at first temporarily – due to low usage, according to the NHS.
The closure sparked dismay in the community and a campaign to reopen the beds has been running ever since.
Rothbury county councillor Steven Bridgett welcomed the decision by Mr Hunt to refer the matter to the Independent Reconfiguration Panel.
He said: “I would like to say a huge thank-you to Northumberland County Council for their submissions to the Department for Health and to the five members of the county council healthcare scrutiny committee who referred the matter to the Secretary of State. The decision to refer can only be made by the Department for Health, based on the submissions by the Northumberland County Council healthcare scrutiny committee.
“Hopefully, the Independent Reconfiguration Panel will recognise the importance of the 12 beds in our community hospital and how crucial they are to our communities for the future delivery of healthcare services within our rural area. Now the hard work really begins.”