A CONSULTATION on the future of East Lancashire's hospitals was today branded a farce after just 0.2per cent of people sent back consultation forms.

Today critics said people didn't want to choose between two "virtually identical" options put forward by bosses while others hadn't bothered because they saw the consultation as a "done deal".

And they said a "free newspaper" style document sent to 220,000 households at a cost of up to £20,000 had failed to catch people's eye.

But the NHS boss leading the consultation which began on March 21 and closes on July 10 said while the response so far was "disappointing" efforts were being made to get people involved.

Only 850 people returned an opinion form sent by East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust.to virtually every home in the area about plans that will fundamentally change which hospital many people are treated at.

Caroline Collins, spokeswoman for the Royal College of Nursing said: "It is really disappointing and quite worrying.

"There is a strong sense of resignation and apathy among the staff.

"A lot of people feel the trust are just going through the motions and are going to do what they want to do."

Bob Simpson, a member of the Patient and Public Involvement Forum watchdog which oversees the trust, said: "It's hellishly disappointing.

He said: "Whatever argument someone makes it can be countered by saying people didn't participate so they must be happy.

"I think there is an apathy among people about it, it may well be because people think it is a done deal.

"People in Blackburn with Darwen think the changes will not affect them but they will. It is probably the most important consultation they have ever been asked to take part in in their lifetime.

"I think an awful lot of people have received the document and mistaken it for a free newspaper and, as a result, felt it was not something they were interested in."

Changes guaranteed to happen under both options include the vast majority of pre-booked operations moving from Blackburn to Burnley hospitals, affecting about 5,700 people a year.

Blue-light A&E services are also set to go to Blackburn's Queen's Park Hospital instead of Burnley General, about 20 per cent of its present patients.

People are only being asked which hospital should lose key women's and children's services such as consultant-led births.

Coun Tony Humphrys, chairman of Blackburn with Darwen Council's health scrutiny committee, said: "I think it is down to complacency but I think a lot of people have been confused by the document. The explanations could have been simplified."

Tim Ellis, spokesman for Unison, said: "People in Burnley seem to be clearly expressing a desire to retain emergency services at their hospital and find it difficult to express a view between the two existing options.

"The NHS will have to consider the responses carefully because if 99.8 per cent of people haven't responded it doesn't mean they support the proposals."

Val Bertenshaw, who is leading the consultation for the trust, said bosses were now "trying everything" to get people involved.

The 16-page document has been sent to an estimated nine out of ten homes at a cost estimated to be as high as £20,000.

Public meetings began after the May 4 elections and an information bus will begin to visit towns from today.

Health chiefs say the changes are needed to save cash and prevent doctors rota's being too thinly spread across East Lancashire.

The full and summary document are available at www.eastlancs.nhs.uk or by calling 01254 293855.