“THANK YOU!” That was the message to Daily Echo readers for helping to save children’s heart surgery in Southampton.

Doctors, nurses and families from Southampton cheered and hugged each other as health bosses announced that the city’s world class unit would not face the axe.

Those who had travelled up to London to hear the decision were immediately on their phones to colleagues and patients who were waiting anxiously for eight hours at Southampton General Hospital to hear the news.

More than 250,000 people signed the Daily Echo’s Have a Heart campaign petition to show health bosses how vital and valued the unit was – and yesterday they listened.

Sam Prior, from Locks Heath, whose son Aaron was born with a serious heart defect, said: “We are over the moon. We have waited so long and worked so hard for this, everyone has.

“It was the right decision and it is justified because Southampton is the second best unit in the UK.

“A massive thank you to everyone who signed the petition and to the Daily Echo because thanks to their support our fight was kept in the news and helped to show how fantastic our unit is.”

Dr Iain Macintosh, director of the paediatric intensive care unit in Southampton, added: “It is a good, sensible decision and I think everybody who has been involved in the campaign should be proud of themselves because essentially they managed to make the decision-makers think again about the process and dismiss some of the assumptions they started with.”

Also at the meeting was Steve Brine, MP for Winchester and Chandler’s Ford. He said: “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.”

The decision means that the city’s world-renowned unit will become one of seven specialist centres in the country as Leeds, Leicester, Oxford and the Royal Brompton in London lose their surgery status.

As the news filtered back to Southampton, it was celebrations all round, as well as relief now that 17 months of uncertainty are over.

Dr Michael Marsh, medical director at Southampton, said: “The future is secure and we can get on with trying to make services better, which I think is what it is all about.

“The Have a Heart campaign was the public voice and I think that it had an impact.

“It is humbling to know so many patients and families and all the other people want to support the service.”

Leader of Southampton City Council Richard Williams added: “We are absolutely delighted that the JCPCT has fully recognised the excellence of Southampton’s children’s heart unit and have listened to the justified and logical argument to produce this excellent result.

Southampton City Council commends the Daily Echo for this important campaign which we fully supported and which without doubt significantly contributed to the Trust’s decision to secure our children’s heart unit for the future – well done.

“It’s just a shame we had to go through all this nonsense, but we got the right outcome and a great result for children and young people in this area.”

The decision comes 17 months after Southampton’s unit was given just a 25 per cent chance of survival, despite being ranked the second best in the country.

Throughout the meeting, which over-ran by three-and-a-half hours, the Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts was keen to stress that fewer, bigger units would raise standards, saving the lives of more children.

Sir Neil McKay, chairman of the JCPCT, said: “Parents, patients and clinicians told us consistently during consultation that quality of care should be the most important factor, so hospitals’ ability to meet the new national quality standards was foremost in our minds when coming to this decision.

“We strongly believe our decision is in the best interests of all children and will ensure services are safe and sustainable for the future.”

One youngster who was determined to sit through the meeting to hear the all-important decision was ten-year-old Aaron Prior, who had his life saved by the unit in Southampton.

He said: “I think it is the best decision they could make.”

The seven specialist surgical centres will be at Southampton General Hospital, Birmingham Children’s Hospital, Freeman Hospital, Newcastle, Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, Liverpool, Great Ormond Street Hospital, Evelina Children’s Hospital and Bristol Royal Hospital for Children.