Heart unit closure referred to Health Secretary

Sir Neil McKay speaks at Tuesday's open meeting
Sir Neil McKay speaks at Tuesday's open meeting
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COUNCILLORS from across Yorkshire have agreed to refer the decision to close Leeds children’s heart surgery unit to the Health Secretary.

Campaigners have “wholeheartedly welcomed” the move, which is a last-ditch attempt to save the Leeds General Infirmary ward.

Politicians unanimously decided yesterday the Secretary of State Andrew Lansley should review the decision and will put forward their case for keeping it open, after a meeting in Leeds.

Sharon Cheng, from the Save Our Surgery campaign, said afterwards: “It’s an excellent move.

“We feel that questions were not answered today, as suspected. We still feel that the people of this region are going to be seriously disadvantaged.

“This meeting should have taken place months ago. We welcome this decision wholeheartedly.”

The decision to strip LGI of its ability to carry out children’s heart surgery was taken three weeks ago by the Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts in London.

Yesterday its chairman, Sir Neil McKay, was questioned by the Joint Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee (Yorkshire and the Humber), representing 15 councils across the region, which was convened to evaluate whether the decision to end paediatric heart surgery at Leeds met the best interests of patients, who otherwise will have to travel to Newcastle, Liverpool and Birmingham for treatment.

After hearing from parents, doctors and campaigners, Sir Neil said: “Uncertainty is the enemy of progress. We want to get on with an implementation plan at the earliest opportunity.”

Challenged on how Newcastle would offer a better service, Sir Neil said: “The service will be better because we have got for the first time an agreed set of standards which will have to be agreed everywhere.”

A national model of care, minimum numbers of operations and more availability of doctors were other benefits, he added.

Speaking about the campaign to save the LGI unit, including a petition signed by 600,000 people, he said: “I commend the organisers of your campaign. To achieve that degree of signatories to a petition is a major achievement. But the Court of Appeal has said true consultation is not just counting heads.”

Fears raised by a Leeds doctor about the threat to children’s lives if the closure goes ahead were also rebutted. Paediatric intensive care specialist Dr Mark Darowski said: “Some babies will die and more will suffer brain injuries as a result of these changes.” But Sir Neil told the committee they had never been warned of this by experts who had advised them.

Parents told of their harrowing experiences. Leeds mother Steph Ward, whose son Lyall has fought from the brink of death, said: “I am not prepared for my son to be the sacrificial lamb for the Safe and Sustainable review to push through this system and I will fight them all the way.”

Jon Arnold, trustee of campaigning charity the Children’s Heart Surgery Fund, said his daughter Zoe needed open heart surgery when she was three weeks old.

“If I felt travelling to Newcastle would improve her standard of care, I would do it tomorrow,” he said. “Our campaign supports a move to fewer, larger centres.

“We believe the decision regarding where these centres will be is wrong and we believe the decision is flawed.”

Coun John Illingworth, chairman of the Joint Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee, said councillors were not satisfied there would be any improvement for patients.

The committee will now write to the Health Secretary and a report outlining its concerns is being produced.

Following the meeting, Anne Keatley-Clarke, chief executive of charity the Children’s Heart Federation, warned: “It is important that those affected are supported through the change, but it is equally important that parents’ and clinicians’ natural affinities with their local unit do not hold up the necessary improvements to a national paediatric cardiac surgical service.”