The boss of an under-fire hospital has gone on extended leave.

Ken Cunningham, chief executive of Surrey and Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust, has handed the running of Crawley Hospital over to troubleshooter Anthony McKeever.

The trust, which also runs East Surrey Hospital, Redhill, is more than £4.5 million in the red and has been forced to close beds at Crawley.

The trust has been heavily criticised for its decision to close the accident and emergency (A&E) department at Crawley and send critically ill patients to Redhill.

Hospital managers say having all emergency care under one roof would be better for patients. However, people in the town say lives are being put at risk because of the longer journey.

Sussex ambulance workers have also criticised the changes, saying they now experienced regular delays at Redhill when trying to hand patients over.

The trust was given a zero rating in the Government's annual star ratings in 2004.

The growing crisis led to Crawley MP Laura Moffatt, a former nurse who once worked at Crawley, to call for Mr Cunningham's resignation.

Mr Cunningham will continue to be paid his £110,000-a-year salary but no date has been given for his return.

Mr McKeever has almost 20 years' management experience in the NHS including periods as chief executive of the Royal Shrewsbury Hospitals NHS Trust and at health authority level. He has also worked for the Department of Health. He was temporary chief executive at Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust last year.

Surrey and Sussex Trust chairman Adrian Brown said: "Mr McKeever is a dynamic chief executive with a positive and determined approach.

"His experience will help us tackle some of the major challenges facing the trust."

A spokesman for the Sussex Ambulance branch of Unison said: "We have been aware there have been problems in the trust for some time and our members have highlighted their concerns with the A&E."

Last month Mrs Moffatt said she could not see the problems at the trust improving without a change in personnel to support staff.