NHS chiefs have agreed to lift the Royal Blackburn and Burnley General hospitals out of special measures after a major inspection found ‘significant improvements’ had been made in the last year.

The report from the Care Quality Commission (CQC) noted several key achievements since the appointment of Jim Birrell as interim chief exectuive in January, but stressed that a number of areas still carry serious concerns.

East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust (ELHT), which runs both hospitals, was given an overall rating of ‘requires improvement’, which is the trust’s first rating under the regulator’s beefed up inspection regime.

It was previously described as ‘high risk’ by the watchdog - and some areas of its service have come in for heavy criticism in the past few years.

MPs and health campaigners have spoken of their ‘huge relief’ at the report’s findings, while staff who were left ‘devastated’ when the trust was placed in special measures, said the damning reports published last year had been a ‘blessing in disguise’.

One of the most important findings relates to the change in culture at the trust, which has gone from a ‘defensive’ organisation that ‘lacked compassion’, to one that now takes a more ‘open and honest approach’, with a leadership team that is more visible and approachable.

The CQC also recognised the efforts made to recruit about 300 new nurses and healthcare assistants, and to improve the flow of patients through the emergency department.

Professor Sir Mike Richards, the chief inspector, said: “It is clear that East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust has worked hard to improve since being placed in special measures last year.

"The trust has made real progress to meet the requirements of the Keogh Review, with the way that it is led changing significantly.

“Staff told us the culture of the trust was changing and this was backed up by what we saw, an engaged workforce who were increasingly proud of where they worked.”

However, he said the trust still needed to make improvements in several areas, as changes have not become embedded right across the trust.

A major concern was raised around the procedures followed by surgical staff, after it was found that equipment checks were not always being carried out properly, resulting in incidents in which items had been left inside patients. One of these incidents was highlighted by the Lancashire Telegraph on Monday.

He also raised concern about the number of senior positions that are only filled on an interim basis, and noted the large backlog of complaints that still needs to be dealt with.

There were also shortcomings identified in medicines management and the use of risk registers, which are crucial documents to highlight areas where potential problems could arise.

Blackburn MP Jack Straw said: “This will be a huge relief to patients and staff and it’s a tribute to the way in which the trust has gone about its work. But as the CQC make clear, it’s very important that they don’t step off the gas now and continue to make the required changes.

“It’s a human institution and mistakes will always be made, even at the very best trusts. But it’s important to keep them to a minimum and make sure they’re investigated in an open and honest way, so that lessons can be learned.”

He praised Mr Birrell and trust chairman Professor Eileen Fairhurst for driving through the changes and added: “There had to be new leadership where an institution was failing in a way the trust was.”

The report follows a three-day inspection at the end of April, which was followed by an unannounced visit to Blackburn’s emergency department on May 6.

The trust has been in special measures since July last year, when NHS chief Sir Bruce Keogh made wide-ranging criticisms of the way it was run over several years. Former chief executive Mark Brearley quit in December, citing personal reasons.

Pendle MP Andrew Stephenson said: “I’m encouraged by what the chief inspector has said and pleased to see that progress is being made in some key areas.

“However several concerns remain and I will continue to work with the trust to ensure they are delivering the high standards patients expect.”

The NHS Trust Development Agency, which has been overseeing the changes at the trust, said it will continue to provide support to the trust, despite the special measures regime being lifted.

Mr Birrell, who is set to leave the trust later this year to be replaced by a permanent chief executive, said: “I am delighted at the outcome and very pleased for our hard working and dedicated staff, who were devastated by the findings and criticisms of Keogh.

“We can now draw a line in the sand and look to move forward with the quality and clinical strategies that will enable us to provide the best possible safe, personal and effective care for our patients.

“The inspectors reported that they were particularly impressed by the staff, many of whom participated in the process.

“The vast majority spoke of the improvement they had experienced in the culture of the organisation.

“Staff felt proud to work in the trust and said that they would now recommend it as a place to work. Inspectors found that staff were kind and caring and patients were generally positive about their experience.”