Future of Newcastle's child heart services still in doubt after new delay

Newcastle MP Nick Brown hits out after Ministers admit decision on heart services delayed again - 13 years after changes were first proposed

The Children's Heart Unit at the Freeman Hospital, Newcastle
The Children's Heart Unit at the Freeman Hospital, Newcastle

A decision about the future of child heart services at Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital has been delayed yet again, Ministers have admitted.

Newcastle MP Nick Brown hit out after Ministers revealed an announcement about which units will remain open had been delayed until later in the year.

The specialist centre at Freeman Hospital, where Europe’s first infant heart transplant took place in 1987, is one of those potentially affected.

Mr Brown pointed out that an inquiry had recommended reducing the number of centres because it would help the remaining services provide better care.

But there was no sign of a decision - even though the original recommendations had been made 13 years ago.

Newcastle East Labour MP Nick Brown
Newcastle East Labour MP Nick Brown

The Labour MP told health ministers: “The key recommendation to the Government on children’s heart surgery, which was made in 2001, was that fewer units should be centres of excellence, because that was in the best interests of patients.

“Now, 13 years later, none of that has actually happened. Do the Government still accept the premise that fewer units should be centres of excellence, and will the Minister tell us what accounts for the delay?”

Health Minister Jane Ellison told him: “I understand his frustration, but the review is very important. NHS England has confirmed that it will not be able to consult quite as early as it had wished, but it should be appreciated that this review is more comprehensive than the last one.”

The long debate over childrens hearts services dates back to 2001, when an inquiry chaired by lawyer Sir Ian Kennedy found that babies with heart conditions had died unnecessarily at Bristol Royal Infirmary between 1990 and 1995.

The inquiry found that the unit was “simply not up to the task” because of shortages of key surgeons and nurses, and a lack of leadership, accountability, and teamwork.

A decision was taken to cut the number of heart surgery units from 10 to seven, with units in Leeds, Leicester and west London earmarked for closure. It appeared to mean the future of the Freeman Hospital unit was assured.

Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital
Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital

But last year the Government scrapped this plan, after a review found that a consultation into the closures had been flawed.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said asked NHS England to look again at the reorganisation of children’s heart surgery and report back by the end of July.

But Ms Ellision has now admitted: “I understand that NHS England will consult on draft service standards later this year, but will not do so in July as was previously expected.”

Speaking in a debate on health services, Mr Brown said: “I have the honour to represent the Freeman Hospital and its internationally renowned heart units, including its high-achieving children’s heart unit.

“In the 2001 review of the Bristol children’s heart unit, Professor Sir Ian Kennedy clearly stated that England needed a smaller number of centres of excellence to undertake the complex, highly skilled procedures involved. No one has refuted his arguments, but, 13 years later, we are no closer to achieving the outcome that he said was desirable.

“We cannot, and should not, let that issue drift. The Government have an obligation to set out a clear way forward that is compatible with Sir Ian’s recommendations, and to do so on the merits of the medical arguments ... we are no clearer about the future of children’s heart units in England.”


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