IT WAS the moment they had been waiting for.

Sporting special T-shirts and armed with banners, families took time off work and school to show the man in charge of the country’s health that children’s heart surgery in Southampton must be saved.

But when the moment came for health secretary Andrew Lansley to face the campaigners as he arrived at Southampton General Hospital he appeared to give them the slip.

In fact his surprise move even left the hospital’s chief executive Mark Hackett, who had been waiting to greet him, standing on a road outside the building unaware the Government minister had already gone inside through another entrance.

Mr Lansley’s side step angered the parents, who have all backed the Daily Echo’s Have Heart Campaign to save the threatened unit which has save many of their children’s lives.

Campaigning Paul Prior, dad of schoolboy Aaron, who was born with part of his heart missing, said: “I called him a coward because I felt he was trying to dodge parents and showed total disrespect for the parents who travelled here today.”

But ten minutes after he arrived and the parents had vented their anger the Tory Health Secretary announced he would finally meet them.

The drama happened as the Daily Echo’s petition calling on the unit to be saved hit 13,000 signatures.

During the ten-minute meeting Mr Lansely faced parents asking why Southampton’s unit is under threat despite being ranked second in the country.

He admitted he had avoided the campaigners on his way into the hospital saying: “My intention is not to have a snatched conversation in an entrance but to have a proper conversation.

“I understand how you feel. I have been here before and seen the great work they do.”

He also agreed to meet campaigners once the consultation was over if they were unhappy about the final decision made by the Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts.

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The future of children’s heart surgery in Southampton is at risk as health chiefs look to cut the UK’s 11 centres down to six or seven. Southampton features in one of four options in the public consultation. If the unit closed, families would be forced to get treatment at units which experts say fell below the “exemplary” standards of the city.

Mr Lansley said: “I haven’t set up the review and the review is not controlled by me in any sense. It is not my job to interfere with the consultation.”

At which point one of the crowd of 30, shouted: “What is your job then?”

The final question came from nine-year-old Aaron Prior, from Locks Heath, who asked: “When Southampton is the second best why not just get rid of the ones that have less and keep the best?”

It was not a question Mr Lansley was able to answer but speaking to the Daily Echo afterwards, he added there would be a chance for him to step in if the decisions reached by the JCPCT are not justified.

He said: “I know that if there are conclusions that people believe are not justified, they will refer that to me, but now is not the time for me to interfere.”

The Daily Echo understands that the Department of Health’s press team requested no media to be present in the conference room but by then the Echo were already inside.

Hospital boss Mr Hackett raised the cardiac unit’s future with Mr Lansley. Afterwards he said: “It was fantastic to see the really positive support our parents have for this world class service in Southampton and it was great the Secretary of State had a chance to see that and listen to their views.”

Those leading the Safe and Sustainable Review are encouraging those trying to save the future of heart surgery in Southampton to make their views known by taking part in the consultation.

Fiona Smith, member of the Safe and Sustainable Steering Group, said: “This review is not about cost cutting or closing hospitals but is focussed on ensuring that children and young people in the future receive the best possible care in the right place from the right people at the right time.

“The aim is to improve services for all children with congenital heart disease and make them more sustainable for the future.

“The review is a true consultation and we look forward to receiving the views of both parents and professionals. All views will be taken into consideration and we encourage everyone with an interest in future of the service to take part.

No decisions have been made on the future of any of the units currently providing children’s heart surgery and will not be until the outcome of public consultation has been considered.

“Centres not chosen to continue providing children’s heart surgery will continue to play a pivotal role in the new congenital heart networks ensuring expert care remains close to home or at home.”