Glimmer of hope as judges back heart challenge

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MONTHS after the day when Yorkshire families heard their children’s heart surgery unit would close, a five-minute court hearing brought a glimmer of hope.

The success of a judicial review over the decision to move the service out of Leeds General Infirmary could mean a major re-think over the whole shake-up to improve outcomes for children with heart defects.

Hundreds of children from the region face travelling to Newcastle or Liverpool if surgery ends in Leeds which could leave some families travelling up to three hours for life-saving care.

Parents last night welcomed the ruling.

Lois Brown, of Skipton, whose daughter Amelie was born with a heart defect, was in court for the decision.

She said: “It’s not the end, we know that, but it’s a great hurdle to get over and a brilliant victory for us. For all the families who have worked so hard campaigning, and raised significant amounts of money, it’s brilliant.”

Steph Ward, of Leeds, whose son Lyall was diagnosed with a heart condition before he was born, said: “Obviously we are delighted the judge has clearly seen through the flaws in this process and accepted that for the process to be fair and transparent all parties should have access to the same information,”

Pudsey MP Stuart Andrew said the decision was a “fantastic victory”. He claimed the review by the Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts (JCPCT) had been “flawed from the outset and is fundamentally biased against Leeds”.

“No one is denying that the principles behind the review are not sound and that it is logical to focus resources on a smaller number of specialised units. However, the review has not been conducted in a fair and transparent way and it is good to see that the judicial review has also reached this conclusion,” he said.

He was among a number of MPs who yesterday demanded a statement from Ministers.

Leeds North West MP Greg Mulholland also called for the senior NHS figures who had made the closure decision to be barred from any further part in the process.

“The JCPCT have failed in their clear duty to follow due and lawful process, have failed to provide information requested and have been dismissive and arrogant in their responses to those who have questioned what we now know to be an unlawfully made decision,” he said. “They cannot be trusted to play any further part in this process.”

Coun John Illingworth, chairman of a Yorkshire-wide committee which investigated the decision, said the ruling was a “huge boost”. “We will continue to highlight the flaws of this ill-thought-out proposal which has huge implications for sick children and their families across the Yorkshire and Humber region,” he added.

The nationwide review of children’s heart surgery is designed to improve care for youngsters, by concentrating resources in fewer specialist units with each expected to carry out a minimum of 400 procedures every year.

The target should ensure surgeons and theatre staff carry out enough of the relatively rare procedures to properly hone and retain their skills.

But campaigners from Yorkshire say Newcastle would never reach the 400 target because families would choose to go to easier-to-reach centres in Liverpool, Birmingham or even London and still get the same level of care.

Sir Neil McKay, chairman of the JCPCT and a previous chief executive at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, denied Newcastle had been favoured because it carries out heart transplants.

“It’s very important that people don’t understand for one minute that the transplantation issue is the single most important determinant,” he said. “There were various determinants where we thought Newcastle was stronger.

“We took advice from national experts about transplantation and the advice was that it would be very difficult to move transplantation.”

He added: “My message to everybody involved in this is that I am more determined than ever to find a solution to this long-standing issue for children with congenital heart disease. We know we need to reduce the number of centres and that quest will continue.”