High Court ruling puts future of children's heart services in region into question (From The Northern Echo)
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High Court ruling puts future of children's heart services in region into question
11:30am Thursday 7th March 2013 in News
CAMPAIGNERS have won a High Court challenge over proposed changes to children's heart surgery services in England.
The victory for campaigners trying to stop the closure of the heart unit at Leeds General Infirmary means that the uncertainty about the future of the Freeman Hospital child heart surgery unit in Newcastle will continue.
Supporters of the Newcastle unit were jubilant last year when it was announced that after a long consultation process the Freeman would become the main child heart surgery unit in the North-East of England - at the expense of the Leeds unit.
But the court decision suggests that the whole process will have to be repeated.
Save Our Surgery (SOS), which is trying to stop the closure of the heart unit at Leeds, argued the consultation process leading up to the changes was unfair and procedurally flawed.
Today Mrs Justice Nicola Davies, sitting at Londons High Court, ruled that the challenge must succeed - but what the victory means for the future will be decided at a later date.
An SOS statement said: "This judgement is in itself a victory for the people who fought to keep childrens heart surgery services in Yorkshire, and to challenge what they knew to be a flawed and unjust process."
SOS, which represents a large number of people in the Leeds area, has been pushing for a rerun of the consultation.
The legal challenge stems from a decision last July that paediatric cardiac surgery should be concentrated at fewer, larger sites.
It will mean patients in North Yorkshire will have to travel to Newcastle for operations.
Sharon Cheng, a spokeswoman for SOS, said the Leeds group was "extremely pleased and relieved".
She said: "This judgment finally confirms what we have always believed, that the Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts' review process and decision to remove children's heart surgery services from Leeds was unlawful.
"Winning this case in the High Court proves once and for all that the supposed consultation was a rubber-stamping exercise conducted with an outcome in mind, with clinicians, MPs and patients fooled into feeling they had influence.
"This action was taken by parents and clinicians who simply could not stand by and watch a clear injustice being done."
The initial proposal to concentrate child heart surgery on fewer sites came from top surgeons who feel that this would be in the best interests of patients and their families.
Staff at the Freeman have spoken of their frustration that this issue has not been resolved after so long.
A spokesman from the Newcastle Hospitals trust said: “The trust was delighted that the judge recognised the quality and uniqueness of our children’s heart surgery service, stating that it is 'the only unit in the country to provide all cardiac care from conception, through birth, childhood and adulthood'.
"She recognised that our unit 'is one of only two children’s cardiac pulmonary transplant units in the UK, among the top five centres in the world, within this field and has an international reputation'.
"The Trust became involved in the court proceedings to correct inaccurate and derogatory information made in statements filed on behalf of Leeds about Newcastle’s service.
"The Judge has not made any finding against Newcastle but queried an aspect of the NHS consultation as part of the reconfiguration process. The Judge must decide in the near future what action, if any, should be taken.
"The children’s heart unit at Freeman Hospital has fully supported the objectives of the review which are to ensure high quality heart surgery will be provided for all children.
"The decision to include Newcastle as one of the seven units in the country was reached following assessment by a panel of national experts during the most extensive consultation ever undertaken by the NHS.
"They recognised Newcastle’s outstanding service and reputation for innovation which is demonstrated by our world class results.
"We are disappointed that the implementation of the review will be further delayed by this litigation.
"However we remain confident that the original decision will in due course be upheld and the Freeman Hospital will be one of the designated centres providing specialist children’s cardiac surgery, for which our performance and very high quality is recognised internationally.
"Newcastle Hospitals gives reassurance that our first and foremost consideration will remain the interests of children and their families under our care and we will not allow delays in the review process to compromise the quality of our excellent service."
Sir Neil McKay, pictured above, chair of the Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts, which was in charge of the consultation process, said: “I am very disappointed with the court’s decision. The pressing need to reform children’s heart services is long overdue and experts have cautioned that further delay in achieving the necessary change would be a major set-back in improving outcomes for children with heart disease.
"The judgment focuses on a single matter of process, but the case for the reconfiguration of children’s heart surgical services remains strong. There is a rare consensus on the need for change right across the board – NHS staff, medical royal colleges, professional associations and national charities all support the case for fewer larger surgical centres, new national quality standards and stronger networks of care.
"The consultation - which we undertook with an honest and open mind - was the largest carried out by the NHS and respondents were staunch in their support of the need for change. There is nothing in the Court’s judgment that supports the Claimant’s accusations that the consultation was a “rubber stamping” exercise."
Commenting on the High Court decision, Harrogate & Knaresborough MP Andrew Jones said: “This is a landmark ruling for children’s heart surgery in Leeds. Moves to close the unit which seemed to have all the momentum have been stopped in their tracks.
“The campaigners made a professional case during the judicial review and had the support of local MPs of all political parties including me.
“I spoke at a special debate in Westminster about this matter. I stressed that I thought greater weight should have been given in the review to the location of Leeds in respect of its suitability for the continuation of children’s heart surgery.
"Leeds has good transport links, not only from north to south, but from east to west, and the key point is that the review proposed that everyone in the Harrogate postcode would travel north to Newcastle. I have spoken to many of my constituents on this matter and they have told me that such an assumption is nonsense.
“I am pleased to see that the High Court have recognised that the process for making the decision to close the Leeds Unit was flawed.
“The impact of population numbers, and travel times and patterns, simply needed far more weight in the review. I want to see the Leeds unit continue its excellent work, serving the people of Yorkshire and beyond, but as the decision now seems set to be reviewed following this legal ruling, correct weighting needs to be given to the important factors of travel time and population numbers.”