Thousands protest against closure of children's heart unit at Leeds General Infirmary


Parents, nurses and MPs joined together today to take part in a demonstration against the ending of children's heart surgery at a hospital.

Thousands of people gathered in Millennium Square, Leeds, to protest at the proposal to end paediatric heart surgery at Leeds General Infirmary.

The facility at Leeds was one of three earmarked for closure following a review of children's heart services.

The NHS review decided having 10 units carrying out children's heart surgery spread expertise too thin.

But campaigners say the closure of the Leeds unit would leave a population of 14 million people having to travel from Yorkshire and Lincolnshire to Newcastle, Liverpool and Birmingham for treatment.

Demonstrators wore Children's Heart Surgery Fund T-shirts and held banners and signs reading "SOS Save Our Surgery" and "Don't Break My Heart" as they gathered before a march around Leeds city centre.

They cheered in the sunshine as speakers stood on the steps of Leeds Civic Hall and rallied the crowds.

MPs Stuart Andrew, Hilary Benn, Greg Mulholland and Ed Balls were among those taking part in the march.

A roup of nurses joined the speaker on the steps with banners, which read: "Proud to deliver gold standard care" and "467 years of combined cardiac nursing experience lost".

One nurse, addressing the crowd, described the proposed closure as a "fundamentally flawed decision which has ignored the voices of Yorkshire families".

The demonstrators chanted "we shall not be moved" as they marched around the city and back into Millennium Square.

Parent Lois Brown, whose daughter has a heart condition, addressed the crowd before the march.

Cheers rang out as she said: "I think it's vital to keep this unit in Leeds. I'm loyal to this unit, I'm loyal to these fantastic staff, who I love. But I'm loyal to my child.

"We want change, we want the best service but we don't want it at the cost of our children's lives.

"We shall not be moved and we will keep it open."

After the march, a number of parents from across Yorkshire and Lincolnshire told the crowd how their journey times would increase if they had to travel to Newcastle instead of Leeds.

Sharon Cheng, director of the Children's Heart Surgery Fund, said around 3,000 people had taken part in the demonstration.

She said: "I'm overwhelmed basically. The strength of the turnout and the families and the patients. We've had people join us who are not connected to the unit, which speaks volumes."

Ms Cheng said they had been campaigning for the unit for 18 months and 600,000 people had signed a petition opposing the removal of children's heart surgery from the hospital.

"We understand why larger, fewer centres would make sense but you have to put them where the population is," she said.

"This centre is keeping these people safe. That's the bottom line here."

Stuart Andrew, Conservative MP for Pudsey, said he was pleased to be involved in the campaign.

He said: "We're here to show our support for all the families and staff at the unit who are clearly wanting to make their voices heard, how important this unit is individually but also for the region.

"There's a huge strength of feeling and I hope common sense will prevail."

Mr Andrew said there was a great atmosphere during the march.

"Everybody is determined to do what they can. People have actually taken the day off work to come here today, which shows how committed they are," he said.

Health minister Simon Burns last week said Health Secretary Andrew Lansley would "almost certainly" refer the concerns of local authorities to the Independent Reconfiguration Panel (IRP).

And tomorrow a health watchdog representing 15 councils across the Yorkshire and Humber region will meet in Leeds to review the decision.

The Joint Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee (Yorkshire and the Humber) will consider a range of evidence to help it determine whether or not the decision is in the interest of health services across the region.

If not, the Scrutiny Committee can refer the matter to Mr Lansley, who would make a final decision.

Professor Sir Roger Boyle, former clinical director for heart disease and stroke and clinical adviser to the Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts, said Leeds General Infirmary would continue to provide cardiology services to children but surgery would be provided by fewer larger centres.

He said this decision would save more children's lives in the future.

Sir Roger said: "I recognise that people have shown a huge loyalty for the hospital in Leeds but pooling surgical expertise means the clinical community can work together, develop new techniques and deliver improved care to keep more children with complex heart conditions alive.

"The NHS was right to make a decision to expand services and improve the quality of care for children with complex heart conditions by pooling surgical expertise in fewer larger centres.

"The decision will improve clinical outcomes and save more children's lives in the future.

"Leeds General Infirmary will continue to play a vital role providing cardiology services to children."

Speaking about tomorrow's meeting, Sir Neil McKay, chairman of the Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts, said: "We are very open to additional scrutiny of the way in which the committee reached our decision.

"The review took three years to complete and my committee considered a wide range of evidence before making a decision on the best way to improve services for children with congenital heart disease. I look forward to demonstrating the robustness of the Safe and Sustainable review and explaining the different factors we considered before reaching our decision."