THE chairman of the independent panel that may decide the fate of the Freeman Hospital child heart surgery unit was in the North-East today.

Lord Bernard Ribeiro, the former consultant surgeon who chairs the Independent Reconfiguration Panel, spent the day at the Freeman's child heart unit, along with panel members, finding out how the unit works, meeting key surgeons, doctors and nurses and talking to parents.

Their one day visit to the Newcastle hospital is part of a series of information-gathering visits the panel is making to similar units around the country.

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Lord Ribeiro told The Northern Echo that the panel had been asked by the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to carry out a second and final review of child heart surgery after a number of local authorities formally objected to the results of the first review in July.

The first review was ordered by the Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts on the recommendation of surgeons who wanted to see expertise concentrated on fewer centres.

After the first review recommended that the only centres providing this service in the North of England should be the Freeman Hospital and Alder Hey Hospital, in Liverpool, there were formal objections from several local authorities to the closure of local units, including Leeds City Council's objection to the closure of the unit at Leeds General Infirmary.

Lord Ribeiro stressed that the review was part of "a democratic process" triggered by these objections.

"I fully appreciate it causes huge frustrations, particularly for those who feel that the case has been made and the decision has been made in July but we live in a democratic country and that is the price you pay," he said.

He stressed that the panel is the "last stop" in the process and their recommendations would be taken into consideration by the Health Secretary by the end of April.

"As soon as he makes a decision we will put on our website the evidence we gave to him so people will be able to see what we have said."

Asked whether all the existing heart units could stay open Lord Ribeiro replied: "Without any question, I do not think the status quo will remain."