Controversial plans to reorganise heart operations for youngsters were axed in June after an independent report heavily criticised a landmark national review which backed moves to end heart surgery at three units including Leeds General Infirmary.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt ordered bosses at NHS England to find a new way forward and officials last month announced they hoped to find a solution by next June.
But in a letter to Mr Hunt published yesterday, Professor Sir Malcolm Grant, chairman of NHS England, said setting the challenge of finding a solution within a year was “hugely ambitious”.
“This does not mean we think the job is easy; on the contrary, it is exceedingly difficult,” he said.
“We do not see this as a competition between providers to find ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.
“Instead, we want a single national service which sets high standards for the delivery of care, which are uniformly available to all NHS patients in England, wherever they live.
“Beyond this aspiration for a national service underpinned by national standards, we do not profess to know yet precisely what the answer is.”
He said the previous NHS Safe and Sustainable review had delivered some “very good work” developing new standards and networks.
“Once validated it will give us a platform for future work, but it does not in any way require us to reach the same conclusions as the previous process,” he said.
“As we continue our initial discussions over the next few weeks and begin to develop a proposition for debate in the autumn, there is bound to be speculation about the ‘answer’ we have in mind. But having promised that we will listen before we act, I can assure you that we have no such prejudice.”
Mr Hunt said yesterday: “I look forward to receiving further updates on this work from NHS England and reaching a conclusion in the best interests of patients and families across the country.”
One option likely to be considered would mean drawing up a national plan which could lead to surgery being axed at some centres – triggering further formal public consultations after next summer.
However an alternative would involve enforcing a national set of standards which hospitals would have to meet to provide surgical services – opening the possibility of some units being forced to shut if they fail to perform as required.