Hewitt puts Blears's ward closure to appeal panel

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Hazel Blears, the chair of the Labour Party, has succeeded in having her protest over the closure of a local hospital maternity unit referred to an NHS appeal panel by Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary.

Ms Hewitt has referred the threatened closures of hospitals in the Manchester area, including the maternity unit in the Labour chairman's Salford constituency, to the independent reconfiguration panel for a review of the plan.

Ms Blears was one of a string of ministers who were accused of hypocrisy by the Tories after joining protest picket lines over closures by hospital trusts ordered to wipe out deficits by April.

There is certain to be an outcry if she succeeds in reversing the closure although Downing Street defended her action, saying yesterday that it was part of her role as a local MP.

Other ministers who have protested at local NHS closures included Ivan Lewis, a health minister, who objected about the Fairfield Hospital in Bury, Greater Manchester; Jacqui Smith, the Chief Whip, who protested about the Alexandra hospital in Redditch; and Home Secretary John Reid, who is campaigning to keep open NHS facilities in his Airdrie and Shotts constituency.

Yesterday, Ms Hewitt won cabinet backing for the closures as part of NHS reorganisation. She also stood by her remarks that the closure of wards was a mark of success, because it meant that patients were being treated more effectively near their homes.

The Prime Minister's spokesman said Ms Blears won the backing of the Cabinet for the strategy. In a presentation to ministers, she said the changes "are the result of what the patient wants and also changes in medical practice which makes it possible to treat people nearer their home at a local level".

There have been protests about the distances ambulances are travelling with patients because of hospital closures. But the spokesman said: "The sophistication in ambulances makes it much safer to carry people longer distances."

Ms Hewitt said that configuration was a "critical part of the shaping the NHS for the future - better care and better value for money go hand in hand."

But she was accused of "living in a parallel world" by Theresa May, the shadow Leader of the Commons. Andrew Lansley, the shadow Health Secretary, said: "Since the NHS financial crisis began, one in every 20 NHS beds has been cut. These bed losses are not a sign of success; they are a sign of Labour's financial mismanagement."