Marie Burnham, chief executive of East Lancashire Hospitals trust, has been granted 12 months leave of absence to head an NHS North West swine flu task force.

Diane Whittingham, chief executive of Calderdale and Huddersfield foundation trust, has been appointed to stand in for her as interim chief executive, starting in August.

NHS North West has said that there was an urgent need for the new role of a director of flu and NHS resilience because of the rapid spread of the virus across the country.

Ms Burnham, who was appointed to head East Lancashire only 15 months ago, will be in charge of preparing the North West for a potential flu epidemic.

East Lancashire interim chairman Ken Morris said: “While the board recognised the importance of releasing Marie to take up this crucial role… we only agreed to do so once we had made sure we had the right person to step into Marie’s shoes.

“Diane Whittingham has extensive experience of… delivering major change across a trust with two main sites and private finance initiative developments.”