IN just a few months and 250,000 signatures later the Daily Echo’s Have a Heart campaign to save Southampton’s world-renowned children’s heart unit had become one of the most supported campaigns in regional newspaper history.

The unit at Southampton General Hospital was threatened with the axe and given just a 25 per cent chance of survival, despite being the second best in the country, as health bosses looked to establish fewer, larger specialist centres across the UK.

The campaign is one of 30 up for a special award at the Society of Editors Regional Press Awards on Friday to celebrate Local Newspaper Week.

The award aims to highlight the power of local newspapers to campaign for positive change in the communities they serve and 30 of the strongest across the UK.

The public has just three days to vote online for their favourite.

Our Have a Heart campaign was launched to keep the city’s unit open immediately after the threat was announced and it was soon winning huge support across the region, and even as far as America and Australia.

Politicians, parents and doctors all united behind it to send a clear message that the unit was one of the best in the country when it came to the quality of treatment for seriously ill children and should not be closed.

Families who had seen their youngsters saved thanks to the specialist treatment on the unit queued up to tell their remarkable stories, desperate to do their bit for the campaign.

The Health Secretary at the time, Andrew Lansley, was confronted with angry campaigners when he visited the hospital during the consultation as the campaign quickly picked up momentum.

And to ensure his colleagues in Whitehall were aware of the legitimate arguments to keep the unit operating, we delivered the petition to the Prime Minister himself at Number 10 Downing Street with an army of campaigners.

The campaign never let up during the 16-week consultation, with a story in the Echo every day and our coverage continued for 17 months until the meeting of the Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts (JCPCT) where the decision of which units to close was made.

After an agonising wait, the committee announced that the unit in Southampton would be saved from the axe and become one of seven specialist surgical centres, to the relief of the 250,000 who signed the petition, although subsequently the review process has itself come under review.

One of the parents who played a major role in the fight to save the unit was Sam Prior, whose son Aaron was born with a complex heart condition and is treated at Southampton.

She said: “The Have a Heart campaign played a vital and fundamental part in helping us achieve the result we all wanted in July 2012.

“Raising the profile of the review with regular features on families treated at our unit and petition updates made a significant difference to the campaign to save our unit.

“It was a great momentous day when we travelled to Downing Street to hand in our 250,000 signatures which certainly got the Prime Minister and Health Minister listening to what the patients and parents wanted from the outcome of the review.

“Without the extensive coverage from the Daily Echo we would not have been able to engage with as many patients, parents and public.

“The support we received from the Daily Echo was amazing and undoubtedly made a huge difference to the success of our campaign.

“I know I speak for all our patients and their families when I say that we are truly grateful and extremely thankful that we had such fantastic support from our local newspaper and without that we may not have had such a successful result.”

One of the country’s leading cardiologists, Dr Iain Simpson, a consultant cardiologist at Southampton General Hospital and president of the British Cardiovascular Society, spoke at the time that he believed the campaign helped to put pressure on the decision makers to ensure quality was the top priority. He said: “The strength of feeling was clear from all of the centres but the campaign that the Daily Echo undertook played a major role by highlighting the strength of feeling amongst the local population and re-emphasising how important quality was.

“Speaking as a local cardiologist there is no doubt that the campaign the Daily Echo undertook was hugely appreciated by the hospital and the department and I think great credit must go to the readers of the paper for supporting what is an excellent service, at an excellent centre.”

This view was backed by Steve Brine, MP for Winchester and Chandler’s Ford, who said at the time: “We got the JCPCT to recognise Southampton is a great unit and thank you to the Daily Echo for all the brilliant work they did collecting all those signatures, it really made the difference and we got the right result.”