HEALTH Secretary Jeremy Hunt as ordered a review of controversial plans to scale back maternity and paediatric services at one of the region’s hospitals.
The measures – which have provoked a storm in the area – would see full maternity care at the Friarage Hospital, in Northallerton, downgraded to a midwife-led unit, meaning pregnant women due to have complicated births would have to travel to Darlington, Middlesbrough, York, Harrogate or even Lancaster to deliver their babies.
Mr Hunt has told the Independent Reconfiguration Panel to carry out an initial review of the controversial proposals, and to report back to him no later than February 22 with advice on whether the changes should be the subject of a full review.
The move follows a decision by North Yorkshire County Council’s Scrutiny of Health Committee in December to refer the issue to Mr Hunt.
“This is very good news,” said County Councillor Jim Clark, the committee’s chairman.
“If a full review is ordered, as I very much hope it will be, there will be an opportunity for the people of North Yorkshire, through the Scrutiny of Health Committee, to present their very deep concerns about these proposals directly to those with the ultimate responsibility for deciding what should happen.”
The proposals sparked protests across large parts of North Yorkshire when they were first put forward last year.
Amanda Owen, a mother-of-six, who lives on a remote Swaledale farm, who has given birth to three of her babies on the roadside while trying to get to hospital has warned people will stop living in the Yorkshire Dales if its maternity services are moved further away.
She was among thousands, including the Foreign Secretary William Hague – the MP for Richmond – who marched against the plans last year.
Coun Clark said it was acknowledged some change was needed.
“We do acknowledge that there are issues involving these services at the Friarage which need to be resolved. Our concerns do not arise from a desire to be obstructive.
“But we are talking about essential services which are of enormous benefit to people who live in a large, mainly rural, sparsely-populated area, and it is vital that we do what we can to protect them.”
NHS chiefs have backed measures which risk losing round-the-clock children’s services and full maternity care and want to carry out a public consultation over the future of services at the Friarage Hospital for pregnant women and children, in a move which would mean that higher-risk births and inpatient care for youngsters would take place at neighbouring hospitals.
The process was halted in October when it became clear councillors planned to refer the issue to the Health Secretary for an independent review over claims that other solutions to retain specialist care in Northallerton should be considered.
NHS bosses are warning that problems in recruiting and retaining specialist staff in Northallerton will mean services for higher-risk pregnancies and children needing overnight hospital stays will become unviable.
Services were temporarily closed in 2009 due to staff shortages and problems providing specialist cover are expected to be exacerbated in future.
Concerns have been raised about the distances women will have to travel to give birth and in November 200 members of the public attended a special meeting of the committee in Northallerton Town Hall, to voice their misgivings over the proposals.
In his letter to the county council, Mr Hunt, says: “I am today writing to the Independent Reconfiguration Panel to ask them to undertake an initial review of your referral.
“Should the panel advise that a full review is necessary you will have the chance to present your case to them in full,” the Health Secretary added.