Anger as Leeds heart review chief turns down meeting invitation

A rally in Millennium Square, Leeds, in support of the Leeds General Infirmary Children's Heart Unit.
A rally in Millennium Square, Leeds, in support of the Leeds General Infirmary Children's Heart Unit.
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YORKSHIRE politicians expressed their “disappointment” after a key figure in the shake-up of children’s heart surgery refused to attend their meeting.

The committee of councillors from across the region was discussing the latest moves in the controversial national review which previously put services at Leeds General Infirmary under threat.

A leading figure in the process, John Holden of NHS England, was invited to update the board on developments.

Mr Holden declined, saying that he had attended a previous meeting in September and to go to another so soon would be giving Yorkshire special attention.

In response, committee chairman John Illingworth said he was “extremely disappointed”, adding: “I am concerned that your response will do little to foster good relations between the Joint Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee (JHOSC), NHS England and specifically those responsible for taking forward the new review.”

Committee members also criticised the fact that two decision-making bodies which are part of the new review do not hold their meetings in public.

Coun Illingworth told the meeting that transparency was one of the issues he wanted to raise with Mr Holden.

“I think the NHS has a lot to learn about transparency,” he said.

A long-running saga has seen the children’s congenital cardiac surgery service at Leeds General Infirmary threatened with closure after a previous national review designed to improve care recommended it should shut.

Following a huge campaign, and a legal challenge in the High Court, an independent panel ruled the process was “flawed”. NHS bosses then launched the new review to decide the future of all heart surgery units.

So far they have been consulting with experts, charities, politicians and patient groups and are expected to propose new quality standards for adult and children’s heart surgery early next year.

Sharon Cheng, director of Leeds-based charity Leeds Children’s Heart Surgery Fund, told the JHOSC meeting that an event organised by the review team was “very useful”.

However the committee meeting was told Mr Holden, director of system policy at NHS England, had declined to attend.

In a letter, Coun Illingworth said that it was “unfortunate (at best) that the tone of your letter appears to suggest that NHS England will decide when it will participate in the legitimate public scrutiny of the new review”.

In a reply circulated at the meeting, Mr Holden said it was “not intended as a snub” but he had to act for all patients. “I wanted to emphasise that I have not been ignoring the interests of Leeds,” he added.

Coun Illingworth also told the meeting he was concerned that two committees created as part of the new review, the Task and Finish Group and the Programme Board, were not open to the public.

“I attempted to enter a meeting of the Task and Finish Group and I was not allowed in,” he said. “I was unimpressed by this.”

Meanwhile NHS bosses revealed that a second phase of a review of care at the Leeds unit prompted by the temporary suspension of surgery earlier this year will be published next month.

In March, operations were halted over issues including mortality data – later shown to be inaccurate.

Damian Riley, NHS England’s acting medical director for the north, said it involved a review of deaths at the unit, interviews with families who had made complaints and an investigation into concerns from doctors at another hospital.

He said they intended to release one overarching report likely to be at the end of January.

Dr Riley added that he could not discuss the conclusions, but added: “The mortality review has happened and the unit is continuing to operate and you may draw your own conclusions from that as to whether any serious conclusions were found or not, but we will have to wait for the final report.”