There's another twist in the row over Yorkshire's Children's Heart Surgery Unit.
Campaigners are considering a legal challenge to stop it closing.
But NHS bosses say the potential action's "hugely disappointing" and only based on a "narrow technical aspect".
They insist their overall decision is right.
The charity fighting the decision to close children’s heart surgery at the Leeds General Infirmary has hit back at a statement by the decision making body saying it amounts to an attempt to pressure them into dropping potential legal action.
The Children’s Heart Surgery Fund lodged a letter before action, putting the decision-making body on notice that it is considering issuing Judicial Review against the decision, but said that it had yet to formally instruct lawyers to commence proceedings while it continues to consider its options.
In a statement issued by Sir Neil McKay, Chairman of the Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts (JCPCT) it accused the fund of trying to ‘quash the landmark decision’ on the future of children’s heart services on a “narrow technical aspect”.
The Director of the Charity, Sharon Cheng, responded:
“The charity has existed for 22 years to make the lives of children with congenital heart defects and their families in the North better. Our parents believe they have been asked to travel further to a unit that doesn’t offer the same quality of service all under one roof as they have now.
“This is based on more than a narrow technical point. The centres were scored by Professor Kennedy's team, but not on a comparative basis. Sir Neil says that Leeds figured amongst the bottom three centres on the scores, but if the JCPCT had allowed consultees to see the scores when asked, we would have been able to point out to the JCPCT that they were demonstrably wrong as an assessment of the relative strength in staff, facilities and co-location. Leeds has for example had 34 staff in the key specialties, where Newcastle had nine, yet they were given the same score for staff. Where Leeds has more beds, catheter labs and theatres, Newcastle were given a better score for facilities. We do not know what the Kennedy Panel were measuring but these scores provided no basis for comparing the centres.
“We have tried every route to ensure our case is heard but despite 600,000 people serving their view through the consultation the response from senior NHS officials was that this is “not X Factor, vox pop or vote, we are not obliged to listen to you.” It is with regret and reluctance we have had to consider Judicial Review. As time is not on our side we have had to explore all the options available to us and we have been advised we have a compelling case which we may decide to pursue to secure the future of the unit for parents and families.”
The charity has never been opposed to the consultation which it sees as essential to ensuring the best provision of children’s heart surgery in the country, but it challenges the validity of the grounds on which the decision to close Leeds was made.
“The charity and what we stand for has deep concerns for the people of the region and have opposed the closure of the Leeds surgery all along. We have consulted with lawyers as we believe this is a serious matter and this is not a decision we have taken lightly. I reiterate that we have not yet instructed our lawyers to commence proceedings on the Judicial Review and I am deeply concerned that the new Health Minister has postponed our meeting scheduled for this week to discuss the campaign as we would certainly prefer to secure a compromise rather than bring proceedings.”
Kevin Watterson, Congenital Heart Surgeon and Chairman of the charity concluded: “I believe the fundamentals of health planning have been ignored in this region. We should put the service where most of the people are. Move the doctors to the patients, not the patients to the doctors.”
There has been widespread public outcry since the decision was made on 4 July with almost 3,000 people attending a peaceful demonstration held on 23 July in Leeds. Politicians from all parties have joined forces to voice their outrage and have written to the former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley. The Health Overview and Scrutiny Panel, the group that represents councils from across the region has also stated its intent to refer the decision to the Health Secretary.
Last year more than 600,000 people from across Yorkshire, the Humber and Lincolnshire signed a petition supporting the children’s heart unit at the LGI, which provides life-saving surgery to hundreds of children in Yorkshire and the Humber and beyond, annually. The campaign has continued to receive cross party political support from MPs who have already begun leading the debate in the House of Commons.
Sir Neil McKay, Chairman of the Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts, says:
“It's hugely disappointing that the Children's Heart Surgery Fund and those backing the campaign group at Leeds General Infirmary have instructed lawyers to launch a judicial review to try and quash the landmark decision on the future of children's heart services. The campaign group's claim appears to hinge on a narrow technical aspect relating to the availability of about 150 detailed sub-scores that the decision makers did not have. Considering the scale of this review, the campaign group's litigation focuses on a very limited element of the overall process.
Children and their families have waited far too long for these vital services to be changed. We believe our decision - backed by professional associations and national charities - was the right one to ensure high quality sustainable services for the future. By pooling surgical expertise and expanding care closer to home, we will improve outcomes and clinicians will save more children's lives.
Each hospital's ability to meet new national quality standards was assessed by a panel of experts chaired by Professor Sir Ian Kennedy. Of the eleven hospitals assessed, the centre in Leeds was ranked in the bottom three overall. A detailed scoring process was undertaken and options with Leeds in them consistently scored lower than those containing the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle. However, our decision was not made solely on the scores. We made our decision having carefully considered Sir Ian Kennedy's 150 page report, knowing there are material differences between the hospitals and remembering Sir Ian's words that mediocrity must not be our benchmark for the future.
As decision makers we took into account several factors including convenience for families and travel times. But, having considered the 75,000 responses to the public consultation - the largest response in the history of the NHS - and with the support of national parent groups and clinical associations we decided that the quality of care and the ability of hospitals to meet the new national quality standards should be the primary factor.
Legal action by the campaign group in Leeds to quash the entire decision means the views expressed during the public consultation would be ignored, as would the support for the model of care and the near unanimous agreement on new national quality standards. Legal action will be costly for both sides and is deeply regrettable. We will mount a robust defence of the decision making process to ensure these vital changes are implemented as soon as possible.”
Mr James Roxburgh, President of the Society for Cardiothoracic Surgery in Great Britain and Ireland, said:
“Whilst I understand people’s allegiance to a particular centre, it’s disappointing that legal action is being taken against the Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts. It was important to reach a decision in July as changes to the way services are organised will improve clinical outcomes and ensure the service is sustainable. Maintaining the status quo was simply not an option. For too long surgical expertise has been spread too thinly across too many hospitals and services need to be better coordinated to deliver expert care closer to where families live. We have stood firmly behind this review as we believe it will create a more sustainable service for the future. It is vital that we now move forward without protracted legal disputes.”