A JUDGE has today ordered an urgent hearing of a new legal challenge that could overturn the decision to keep children’s heart surgery in Southampton.

At present, it is proposed to close operations at three English hospitals including Leeds General Infirmary, but keep them in Southampton.

The decision was made after a huge Daily Echo campaign which attracted more than a quarter of a million signatures from people desperate to ensure Ocean Ward at Southampton General – which has the second-best record in the country – remained open.

But now, campaign group Save Our Surgery (SOS) is seeking a judicial review to keep paediatric cardiac surgery at Leeds and argues the consultation process was unfair.

Children in the area will instead have to travel to Newcastle or Liverpool for surgery.

If SOS wins its action, the proposed changes countrywide will be affected, including Southampton.

The two other units currently facing closure are at Leicester's Glenfield Hospital and London's Royal Brompton, which lost its own application for judicial review earlier this year.

The Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts (JCPCT) decided care should be concentrated at fewer, larger sites to improve standards and chose units at Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle, Southampton and two London centres.

Today, SOS lawyers asked Judge Mackie QC, a deputy judge at London's High Court, to delay their court application against the JCPCT proposals in the light of Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt's decision last month to order a full review of the JCPCT recommendations by the Independent Review Panel (IRP).

The panel reports at the end of next February.

Philip Havers QC, for SOS, argued Mr Hunt could make a decision based on IRP recommendations which would make the Leeds legal challenge unnecessary, and thus save a lot of expense.

Dinah Rose QC, representing the JCPCT, argued the case should come on for hearing as quickly as possible to avoid further delay, which was already damaging children's heart care services.

She argued the secretary of state had indicated that he wanted the opinion of the High Court on the Leeds case to assist the IRP deliberations.

Judge Mackie dismissed the SOS application for a stay and instead said its challenge should be brought forward and heard over two days before February 15, weeks before the IRP reports to Mr Hunt.

Later, Sir Neil McKay, JCPCT chair, said the decision is “a victory for families, parents and patients across the country”, including Southampton.

He said: ''Save our Surgery Ltd brought a strange request to the court - to delay its own judicial review.

''This would have significantly delayed long overdue improvements to children's heart services for months.

''The delaying tactics have failed.

''If the judicial review needs to be heard, we have always maintained that it should be heard as soon as possible.

''Medical royal colleges and national charities have warned that further delay to reform will put children's lives at additional risk, highlighting the urgency of concluding the legal challenge quickly to avoid further delay in improving services for children with heart disease.''