Closing children's heart surgery units? Time to rethink your NHS 'strategy' Mr Hunt

These units do a tremendously important job - let's not forget that

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The Independent Online

A few days ago I took a couple of friends who were visiting us to a restaurant in Leeds.

As soon as we sat, and even before I had an opportunity to look at the menu, I noticed a small SOS-Save our Surgery booklet on my table. The reading that followed left me in disbelief and almost gave me a bad stomach ache.

Apparently, in his wisdom our Health Secretary and his escort of bureaucrats in charge of restructuring the NHS have come to the conclusion that the whole of Yorkshire and the Humber, the region with the fastest population growth in England, with around 5.3 million inhabitants, does not really need a Children's Heart Surgery unit. Yes, you read that right, a Children's Heart Surgery unit. Talking about the weakest link getting the hit for the messing up of the government and the banks.

Apparently, while doing their restructuring “thinking” (and I put thinking within inverted commas, because Neanderthals would probably generate brighter and more logical ideas) Government bureaucrats did not consider the gold standards given to the Children's Heart Surgery unit based at the Leeds General Infirmary. To them a unit that offers over 400 children heart surgeries a year would be better closed, and the parents of these children, who already have to deal with the despair of having a very ill child, would be better off travelling for hundreds of miles to the nearest units, in Newcastle, Birmingham or Liverpool.

No wonder a number of demonstrations, a Facebook page with thousands of likes, and a well-organised campaign based around the site have been put in march. Its organisers are fighting the government in court and have now been granted a judicial review of their case next month.

The support that the campaign is gaining is notable. Only a few days ago the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu joined in and called for the Government to reconsider their priorities when it comes to implementing cuts. He said: “Closing the specialist heart unit at Leeds will have a devastating effect on so many people. It would be terrible news for people across Yorkshire.” Others, including MPs Andrew Jones and Hilary Benn have also joined the fight and questioned the decision of the aforementioned closure.

Of course, the LGI unit is not the only one at risk of being shut down. Three other children's heart surgeries are penned to suffer the same fate. The unit at the world-leading Royal Brompton Hospital in London being one of them.

The tragic part of this story is, of course, that staff working at these units are now doing their very delicate jobs under pressure, and funds raised through charity efforts that could and should be spent on medical supplies and care, are instead being wasted on a judicial review, paying lawyers and legal fees.

It is time for Mr Hunt to finish this uncertainty once and for all. The LGI Children's Heart Surgery unit does a tremendously important job for the whole of Yorkshire and the Humber, and as such it should be not only kept open, but backed as a priority by the Government. I cannot imagine of anything else that should constitute a priority over our children’s health. Let’s hope Mr Hunt and his staff eventually come to think the same.

Anne Keatley-Clarke, Chief Executive of the Children’s Heart Federation commented, “CHF, other national heart charities and the associations of medial professionals support the implementation of these standards because we believe strongly that they will ensure better quality care. This review was a long-awaited clinician led review, which started with the development of new care standards to ensure the highest quality of care and is certainly not part of a cost-cutting exercise. Whilst surgery may cease, other services are planned to continue at cardiology centres and through planned regional networks, more services should be provided even closer to home”.

Sir Neil McKay, Chair of the Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts, said: “The decision to improve the quality of children’s heart services in England by pooling surgical expertise into fewer, larger centres was made by the Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts (JCPCT) in July 2012. This followed a comprehensive review that began in 2008 and saw all hospitals providing children’s heart surgery agree that fewer centres should perform heart surgery on children. Recommendations to pool surgical expertise were also included in a 2007 report by the Royal College of Surgeons and the 2001 report of Professor Sir Ian Kennedy’s public inquiry following the tragic deaths of children at Bristol between 1984 and 1995. Royal Colleges of Medicine and clinicians publicly welcomed the decision on the future of children’s heart services.”