AN in-depth Government review of the children’s services row engulfing one of the region’s major hospitals has moved a step closer.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has launched the process that could see controversial plans to downgrade the paediatric and maternity service at Northallerton’s Friarage Hospital come under intense, top-level scrutiny.

Mr Hunt has told the Independent Reconfiguration Panel to carry out an initial review of the proposals - which would see an end to consultant-led children‘s services at the hospital which serves a huge swathe of rural North Yorkshire.

And he has ordered the panel to report back to him by no later than February 22 with advice on whether the changes should be the subject of a full review.

The move follows a decision by North Yorkshire County Council’s scrutiny of health committee in December to refer the issue to Mr Hunt.

Committee chairman Jim Clark said: “This is very good news.

“If a full review is ordered, as I very much hope it will be, there will be an opportunity for the people of North Yorkshire, through the scrutiny of health committee, to present their very deep concerns about these proposals directly to those with the ultimate responsibility for deciding what should happen.”

The proposals sparked angry protests across large parts of North Yorkshire when they were first put forward last year.

Several thousand people, including the Foreign Secretary William Hague – the MP for Richmond – marched through Northallerton to the Friarage Hospital to demonstrate their support for consultant-led services to continue.

The changes would see the current round-the-clock children’s services at the hospital become a day-care unit and the maternity unit becoming midwifery-led.

High-risk cases or those needing 24-hour care would be transferred to hospitals in Middlesbrough or Darlington.

Councillor Clark said: “We do acknowledge that there are issues involving these services at the Friarage which need to be resolved.

“Our concerns do not arise from a desire to be obstructive.

“But we are talking about essential services which are of enormous benefit to people who live in a large, mainly rural, sparsely-populated area, and it is vital that we do what we can to protect them.”