A DECISION on the future of children’s heart surgery in Southampton has been delayed again – prompting warnings that the confusion will cost lives.

Health chiefs had promised to map out a way forward for culling some of England’s ten child heart units by next month after almost a year of discussions.

Experts agree some centres must close – to ensure surgeons carry out enough operations to develop sufficient expertise – but a previous proposal was thrown out after a judicial review.

That plan would have saved the unit at Southampton General Hospital – which is ranked as one of the best in the country – but axed centres in Leeds, Leicester and London.

It came after the Daily Echo backed Have a Heart collected 250,000 signatures on a petition to save children’s heart surgery in Southampton that was presented at 10 Downing Street.

Now NHS England has revealed it will not even begin a new consultation until the autumn, because the work is so complex.

The delay makes it certain that no decisions will be made before next year’s General Election – despite the original recommendation to axe some centres being made way back in 2001.

A furious John Denham, the Southampton Itchen MP, said: “Medical experts agree that, the longer the delays, the greater the danger that some children’s lives will be lost and other children won’t make the recovery they could. After all the delays and indecision, it’s unforgivable that the Government has not got a grip on this and forced an early conclusion.”

The controversy was raised in the Commons, where health minister Jane Ellison said: “It should be appreciated that this review is more comprehensive than the last one.

“For example, NHS England has developed a comprehensive set of commissioning standards which have never existed before.

“For the first time, the whole patient pathway will be covered, from foetal detection through childhood, into adult services and all the way to palliative care and bereavement.

“It is always frustrating when things do not happen according to schedule, but what really matters is getting this right and being as transparent as possible.”

NHS England will either draw up a new plan to axe some centres, or opt for a new national set of standards which hospitals would then have to meet, or face closure.

Last year, its policy director admitted clinicians had been left “demoralised, frustrated, exhausted and angry” by the continuing uncertainty.

However,NHSEngland has won praise for a more open process, after patient groups complained of being left in the dark in the drawing up of the previous plan.