FAMILIES took to the streets at the weekend to protest against the proposed closure of hospital services in the region.

Families waved banners and chanted as they walked through the streets of Stockton to fight the removal of services from University Hospital of North Tees.

On arrival at the hospital on Saturday afternoon, they released 300 balloons and said they would continue the battle against Professor Ara Darzi's recommendations that consultant-led women and children's services be removed, including the special care baby unit and breast cancer unit.

They said forcing people to travel to the University Hospital of Hartlepool for life-saving treatment would ultimately lead to deaths and reduce the level of care.

Chanting "save our services" and "we will decide", they questioned how a woman in need of an emergency Caesarean section could be transferred to Hartlepool in time to save her baby. And they said forcing women with breast cancer to travel to Hartlepool for treatment would only add stress to their situation.

Jean West, who works as a domestic on the hospital's special care baby unit, addressed the crowd outside the hospital.

She said: "We do not accept that 180,000 residents should be put at risk in favour of the 100,000 people who live in Hartlepool.

"We don't want to take away Hartlepool services, but this whole report was written to save the Hartlepool hospital and it will be to the detriment of North Tees and the people of Stockton.

"Darzi is wrong. Let's send the message that this is our hospital and we do not surrender."

Julie Jobson, from Primrose Hill, Stockton, said her nine-year-old son has had to go to North Tees every three weeks since being a baby for an infusion to help control his chronic lung disease.

She said: "If we have to travel to Hartlepool, we will need to get three buses because I don't drive. What my son has to go through is a big ordeal, but he trusts the staff here and he should not have to go elsewhere."

Protestors have already handed a petition to health chiefs against the move, but they fear the decision has already been taken - something North Tees Primary Care Trust denies.

Liberal Democrat Councillor Suzanne Fletcher said: "I just hope that the people who are making the decision are watching this protest and see the strength of feeling. People fear the move could cost lives."

* A public meeting will be held at the Dolphin Centre in Darlington, tomorrow, at 6.30pm as part of a series of consultation exercises concerning the Darzi review. Darlington Primary Care Trust's chief executive Colin Morris and chairman Sandra Pollard will be joined by senior staff from North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Trust and South Tees and Hospitals NHS Trust to answer questions about the issue.