An extra 30 paediatric intensive care beds and more specialist nurses to staff them have been promised by the end of the year. A new bed location service to help doctors find the nearest available paediatric intensive care bed as fast as possible is also planned in time for the peak winter period when suspected meningitis cases and chest infections place extra burden on an over-stretched service.
An additional pounds 2m was allocated for more specialist nurses - six are required for each intensive care bed, which costs pounds 250,000 a year to run - and to improve "retrieval" services for moving very sick children to their nearest specialist unit.
Overall the number of beds nationally is to be increased by more than 20 per cent over the next four years with 37 new general and specialist intensive care beds, and 18 high dependency beds. There are currently 196 general and specialist intensive care beds and 53 high dependency beds in England.
Announcing details of the five-point plan, Stephen Dorrell, Secretary of State for Health, said that 37 of the new beds will be provided within two years. Asked if the extra beds would mean children would no longer be turned away, Mr Dorrell said the announcement would offer a "better assurance" of care.
Medical and nursing groups welcomed the news, but they said failure to provide new money for paediatric services would result in cuts elsewhere.
The Royal College of Nursing said it was a "positive gesture" but in real terms would do little to alleviate a long-term crisis. It was doubtful that enough specialist staff - usually cited by hospitals as the biggest barrier to opening new paediatric intensive care beds - could be found to run the new beds in the short- term. "There is no pool of trained staff waiting to be employed that we are aware of," a spokesman said.
Harriet Harman, Labour's health spokeswoman, accused the Government of "shirking its responsibility" by refusing to tell hospitals how they are to meet the costs of the new beds.
Hundreds of children in need of an intensive care bed had to be turned away from major hospitals in England last winter, prompting widespread criticism of Government policy from doctors and patient's groups.
The crisis peaked with the death of 10-year-old Nicholas Geldard. He suffered a brain haemorrhage at home in Stockport, Cheshire, in December, and was ferried, already brain dead, to Leeds after hospitals in Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield turned him away.
Following the publication of the Geldard inquiry in March, Mr Dorrell ordered a report into paediatric intensive care by the NHS Executive. That report, published yesterday, after discussions with health authorities and trusts, concluded that more beds, specialist staff and greater flexibility are needed.
Mr Dorrell said that paediatric intensive care was "part of the base commitment of the NHS" and it was a matter of "resource allocations and choices" by individual trusts to determine how they would provide the extra beds. The NHS could not afford over-provision of beds - the annual cost of a bed is equivalent to 20 heart valve operations - but must be able to meet the peaks and troughs of demand, he said.