Background: The long, bitter row over children’s heart surgery in Leeds

Leeds General Infirmary
Leeds General Infirmary
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THE row over the future of children’s specialist heart services has been a long and bitter one.

A shake-up of paediatric heart surgery units in England was triggered by the Bristol heart scandal between 1990 and 1995 in which 35 babies died and dozens more were left brain-damaged.

In the wake of the landmark inquiry into the controversy at Bristol Royal Infirmary, it was recommended that paediatric cardiac surgery should be concentrated in a few specialist centres in order to ensure quality of care.

In 2009, officials launched the “safe and sustainable review”, conducted by the Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts (JCPCT) of England, to assess how best to streamline paediatric congenital cardiac surgery services.

The review concluded that expertise was spread too thinly in the 10 sites which currently house the surgical units and should be concentrated in fewer hospitals.

While experts were deliberating which sites should close, the Royal Brompton in Chelsea, west London - which was later named as a site earmarked for closure - launched a legal dispute over the consultation process.

The hospital, which is the largest specialist heart and lung centre in the UK, argued that the process was unlawful.

It won a High Court action against the JCPCT in November 2011 - the first time one NHS organisation had taken legal action against another.

But the ruling was overturned by the Court of Appeal in April last year. The Royal Brompton said the proposals could put its future in doubt, but judges ruled that the consultation process was fair.

In July 2012, officials announced that the Royal Brompton, Leeds General Infirmary and Glenfield Hospital in Leicester would close their units.

The institutions chosen to house the specialist surgery centres were the Evelina Hospital, which is part of Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital Trust, Great Ormond Street, both in London, Southampton General Hospital, Birmingham Children’s Hospital, Bristol Royal Hospital for Children, the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle and Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool.

But the move was heavily criticised by medics, campaign groups and the families of children who had used the services at the three sites earmarked for closure.

In October, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt ordered a review into the decision to stop surgery at the three units following pressure from councillors in Lincolnshire and Leicestershire over the closure of the unit at Glenfield.

The Independent Reconfiguration Panel is due to report back to ministers by the end of the month.

Meanwhile, campaigners in Leeds were rallying support for their cause.

They argued that patients in Yorkshire would be forced to travel to Liverpool or Newcastle for treatment - a 150 or 200-mile round trip respectively.

Nearly 600,000 people in the region signed a petition against closure of the unit, organised by the group Save Our Surgery (SOS).

The campaigners took their case to the High Court, arguing that the consultation process leading up to the changes was “unfair and procedurally flawed”.

Plans to close the unit were derailed after Mrs Justice Nicola Davies ruled in favour of SOS, saying that aspects of the process were “ill-judged”.

But within just 24 hours it was announced that congenital heart surgery at Leeds would be suspended after questions were raised about its mortality rates.

Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, medical director of NHS England, said the figures were among a “constellation of reasons” behind the suspension.

Following days of negotiations, it was decided that the unit could reopen and it resumed again on Wednesday.

Ten sick children had to be transferred up to 120 miles during the suspension of surgery.