Northern Ireland

Families hope for congenital heart services in Northern Ireland

Sarah Quinlan
Image caption Sarah Quinlan would like Edwin Poots to speak to the health secretary in England

Families campaigning for the retention of children's congenital heart services in Northern Ireland believe they have been thrown a lifeline.

This follows the health secretary's ordering of a new review of congenital cardiac surgery in England and Wales.

Under a previous review into children's heart services - the 2010 Kennedy report - officials had decided to close three units in England.

This was on the grounds that expertise was being spread too thinly.

Instead paediatric heart specialists would be based in fewer centres of excellence, with families expected to travel further to have their children treated.

While Northern Ireland was not included in the original national review, the Health and Social Care Board asked a review team to visit and review the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children (RBHSC).

In August, the review team concluded that while the service was safe it was not sustainable.

The Health and Social Care Board is now carrying out a consultation on how best to cater for these children elsewhere.

The Northern Ireland health minister Edwin Poots said all options should be considered, including an all-Ireland service.

Speaking on Monday morning, he said: "I had issues with the Kennedy report from the outset and was never particularly comfortable that children in Northern Ireland with paediatric congenital heart disease would have to travel to England for surgery.

"Certainly the fact that (health secretary) Jeremy Hunt has moved away from the Kennedy recomendations probably makes it easier for me to arrive at the conclusions that perhaps the parents would be supporting."

Around 100 operations are carried out each year at the RBHSC, with a further 40 children travelling to England or Dublin.

A majority of those who use the service were outraged at the decision, with thousands turning up at public meetings across Northern Ireland to voice their anger at the possibility of losing the local service.

Sarah Quinlan of the Children's Heartbeat Trust told the BBC that they would like Mr Poots to speak to his counterpart Jeremy Hunt in England and Wales to find out why the review of the safe and sustainable review has been called and to find out what impact it would have on Northern Ireland.

She added that the irony is that children in Northern Ireland have been left to carry the brunt of a decision that they were never part of in the first place.

While the Safe and Sustainable Review team found that the service in Scotland was also safe but not sustainable, officials in Scotland have decided to improve and retain the service.

Wales does not have its own specialist paediatric heart service.

Sarah Quinlan said they had not ruled out taking their campaign to England and to the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Officials from both sides of the Irish border have met to discuss the possibilities of developing an all-Ireland service.

Logistics including cost and the availability of specialist vehicles to transport the children are just some of the issues on the table.

In these cash-strapped times, it is not clear whether the economics work for either government.

If the issue is not resolved, children in Northern Ireland will have to travel to England.

As standards for the highly complex service are rising across the UK, Northern Ireland must prove that it too can provide the surgical cover required.

More on this story