CAMPAIGNERS to save children’s heart surgery in Southampton will meet with health chiefs tomorrow amid fears of another year of confusion about its fate.

The Families of Ocean Ward group has been invited to a meeting in London with NHS England, which must draw up fresh plans to settle the long-running controversy.

It follows a warning, by NHS England, that it will take almost another year to come up with new proposals to cut some of England’s ten child heart units.

That threatens to prolong the agonising uncertainty for the unit at Southampton General Hospital – despite its ranking as one of the best in the country.

Last year, the unit appeared to have been saved, after an independent review proposed axing three other centres, in Leeds, Leicester and London.

But, two months ago, Health Secret-ary Jeremy Hunt threw out its “flawed analysis” – after £6m had been spent – and ordered a fresh evaluation.

It came after staff, patients and their families threw their backing behind the Daily Echo’s Have a Heart campaign to save the Southampton unit, which collected more than 250,000 signatures on its petition.

Now NHS England has suggested it will take until June next year to put forward a “revised proposition”, at a further cost of £500,000.

The organisation will either draw a new national plan that would axe heart surgery at some centres – triggering further formal public consultations, after next summer.

Alternatively, it could opt for a new national set of standards which hospitals would then have to meet, or face closure.

Announcing the fresh process, Bill McCarthy, policy director at NHS England, admitted the uncertainty was among the “greatest risks to the current delivery of the service”.

And he described clinicians as “demoralised, frustrated, exhausted and angry”.

He also added: “Some doubt that there is the will to make the necessary changes happen.”

Mr McCarthy said: “Surgical centres are hamstrung in their planning, and recruitment and retention is made more difficult by the lack of a clear service model.

‘Speedy solution’ “This in turn creates a risk that the safety and quality of services may not be able to be maintained, that service levels could reduce or there could be unplanned closures.”

However, the need for a speedy solution could not be “an excuse for imposing a top-down solution, or for running a process where people feel excluded from the real discussions”.

To underline that commitment to “transparency and participation”, more than 20 patient groups – including Families of Ocean Ward – have been invited tomorrow.

The fresh review has been made more complex by a decision to include services for adults – as well as children – with congenital heart disease.

Moreover, in June the Health Secretary highlighted the huge challenge in making decisions based on mortality data that was “extremely difficult to interpret properly”.

Nevertheless, the first official call to cut some heart units – because of poor care, where surgeons carry out too few operations – was made way back in 2001.