THE Archbishop of York has backed the campaign to keep children's heart surgery at Leeds General Infirmary, where youngsters from North Yorkshire receive life-saving treatment.

Dr John Sentamu has visited the unit which could be forced to stop carrying out surgery under an NHS shake-up, following a review in July which recommended care should be concentrated at fewer sites.

However, senior medics have warned children's lives could be at risk if paediatric surgery is stopped in Leeds and families from York and North Yorkshire have to travel to Newcastle instead.

The Archbishop said it had been "a great privilege" to visit the unit, saying: "It serves the whole region and has saved the lives of so many across Yorkshire and further afield.

"It is inconceivable that we could lose such a fantastic integrated local service. This is one of the top-performing units in the country and it is the only one with the recognised 'gold standard' of having the co-location of all paediatric services which are required.

"I have been supporting this campaign to keep the children's heart surgery unit at Leeds open for some time behind the scenes. I have raised my concerns personally with Government ministers. But I want to say publicly that we need to keep this unit open.

"We need a strong NHS serving a large number of children. Closing the specialist unit at Leeds will have a devastating effect on so many people. It would be terrible news for people across Yorkshire."

Dr Sentamu said "good co-ordination and clinical collaboration" was needed rather than "a culture of winner-takes-all excellence".

Sir Neil McKay, chair of the Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts, which made the heart unit decision, said: “Royal Colleges of Medicine and clinicians publicly welcomed the decision on the future of children’s heart services.

"The NHS decision-making committee listened very carefully to all the views expressed during the largest consultation in NHS history. Co-located services and population density were key issues which were given extensive consideration by the NHS when making its decision, which are a matter of public record.

"Since the NHS’s decision. these issues have been included in a referral to the Secretary of State and are currently subject to an independent review by the Independent Reconfiguration Panel.”