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Patients, parents and staff have welcomed as a "significant step forward" comments made by members of an expert panel who backed calls for children's heart surgery to stay at Southampton General Hospital.
During packed public consultation events at Southampton Guildhall on Tuesday as part of the review of paediatric cardiac surgery, three influential clinicians on the five-man NHS Safe and Sustainable panel responded yes when asked whether or not they would recommend Southampton is designated a surgical centre.
The review, which recommends that fewer, larger centres should be created in England, put forward four options of hospitals to retain the service in February.
Despite being rated by experts, led by Professor Sir Ian Kennedy, as the second-highest performing of the 11 centres currently operating in England, Southampton University Hospitals NHS Trust is included in only one of the options.
Hundreds of campaigners flocked to Guildhall Square to voice their opinions during the meetings, while more than 600 people listened to the panel's responses, which included comments from the Government's heart tsar that described Southampton as a "class act".
Professor Roger Boyle, the Department of Health's national director for heart disease and stroke, said Southampton's centre provides a "very high" quality of care and to lose the unit would be a "pity".
He was joined in his endorsement by Dr Ian Jenkins, immediate past president of the Paediatric Intensive Care Society and supported in later comments from Professor Shakeel Qureshi, a consultant paediatric cardiologist at the Evelina Children's Hospital.
The panel praised the Trust's new permanent partnership with the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, which sees all major children's heart procedures referred to Southampton, while life-long care for those patients remains in Oxford's specialist cardiology unit – meeting the core safe and sustainable principles.
Mark Hackett, chief executive of SUHT, who joined current and former patients, staff and members of the public at the rally and sat in on both meetings, said the comments show the high regard Southampton is held in by clinicians in the field nationally.
"These events and the public rally show we as a group – our patients, families, staff and colleagues – will not settle for mediocrity in our NHS.
"The positive response from the panel represents a significant step forward for Southampton in this process and one that we hope lays the foundations for us to continue developing the world-class service we have built here over 40 years."
The panel also urged the Trust to extend its Oxford network model and work closely with colleagues in London to increase its caseload by the 60 cases it needs to meet the target of 400 procedures suggested by the review team.