The Children’s Heart Unit at Leeds faces closure as part of a rationalisation exercise – with services being transferred to Newcastle or Leicester. John Westmoreland argues that no child should be forced to travel miles to receive treatment.

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Over the past few months, surgeons from the Children’s Heart Unit at Leeds General Infirmary have been holding meetings across Yorkshire warning of the dire consequences of closing this facility. Their campaign is passionate and based on sound medical concerns. They rail against the health executives, who are deaf to their analysis and advice.

The closure of the heart unit in Leeds will result in very ill children, and their parents and carers, having to travel over one hundred miles to receive treatment.

However, the campaign is not a straightforward issue of fighting the cuts. Heart surgeons across the country largely accept the rationalisation of heart surgery, which will inevitably mean the closure of some existing heart units. The idea is that surgeons should complete a minimum of 100 operations per year, and there will be enough surgeons on site to cover sickness and holiday leave.

This means that some centres will receive a sizeable injection of funds, while others close. The neo-liberal agenda will be met by showing that ‘cuts mean better value for money’ and a more manageable system.

A committee of Primary Healthcare Trust CEOs have been looking at how best to rationalise cardiac treatment. Of the 10 CEOs on the committee, just one is a surgeon. The deliberations of this group have boiled down to a choice between four options concerning the heart units in the north of England.

The ‘Big 10’ favours an option that means closing Leeds and transferring treatment to Newcastle or Leicester. The surgeons at Leeds are campaigning for option D, which means the closure of Newcastle and the expansion of the Leeds unit. The Big 10 have succeeded in causing division and dispute among health care workers and service users.

Whichever unit closes will result in parents travelling over one hundred miles with sick children, some on public transport, which will involve being away from home for up to 18 hours in the day. If children have to stay overnight, parents will have to find lodgings at their own expense.

Clearly there should be no closures of heart units in the north of England at all. It is simply too large an area for this to work. If this is more expensive then it’s worth it, providing the care children with heart conditions need.

Socialists oppose the rationalisation of health care that will result in cuts. At the same time there is a campaign developing to defend the Leeds unit that we have to be involved in. The logic for keeping Leeds open is overwhelming, and the people who are fighting for this result are not fighting to make things worse for the people of Newcastle.

The Leeds Heart Unit serves a much greater number of people than any other in the north – Liverpool, Leicester and Newcastle – and therefore more people will suffer if it shuts than will be the case elsewhere. Leeds is also the only centre with all the specialist treatments under one roof, which means that when children suffer post-operative complications they do not have to be transferred.

The neo-liberal agenda is not just about cuts, although that is at its heart. It is also about creating a business model where high-powered managers take decisions based on their business vision, and this means over-riding professional judgement and best practice. It appears that the decision to close Leeds is based on the career aspirations of the CEOs that make up the ‘Big 10’, and they have demanded that Tory Health Minister Andrew Lansley silences opposition. Lansley has told the surgeons at Leeds that they will simply have to submit to whatever decision is forthcoming and that no amount of campaigning or petitioning will have any effect on the outcome.

Socialists and anti-cuts activists have to get involved in the campaign. Breaking the neo-liberal dogma and defending the Leeds unit is a fight we should all be in. Our slogans should be ‘Defend Leeds Childrens Heart Unit – Stop NHS Cuts and Privatisation’.

The next step of the campaign will be the demonstration outside Leeds Armouries, 5pm – 6pm, on 10 May. This is when the public consultation will be. We are aiming to widen the campaign.

We must be prepared to defend both the Leeds and Newcastle units. Otherwise we will enter into helping the Con-Dems decide where the axe will fall, and will let them excuse their foul deeds by saying that they listened to the voice of the people.

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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