THE Health Secretary has ruled that controversial proposals to downgrade maternity and paediatric services at a general hospital must be re-examined.

Jeremy Hunt has told the NHS Independent Reconfiguration Panel to review a plan to change consultant-led units at the Friarage Hospital, Northallerton, to midwife-led and short-stay assessment department.

Following warnings by Richmond MP William Hague and South Tees NHS Trust that the services were becoming increasingly fragile due to staffing issues, Mr Hunt has asked the panel to complete its initial assessment by Thursday, May 15.

North Yorkshire County Council’s health scrutiny committee referred Hambleton, Richmondshire and Whitby clinical commissioning group’s (CCG) plan to the minister to ensure that all options for the units had been properly explored.

The panel examined the proposals last year and advised that it would only be necessary for the CCG to hold a public consultation on its two preferred options, providing the CCG offered a clear explanation of the case for change.

The committee said while the CCG had proved changes at the units were necessary to ensure patient safety, it remained unconvinced that all efforts to find such a solution had been exhausted.

Mr Hague added that a review by the panel would help ensure the services had the full confidence of those that use them and that a clear gulf between the CCG's preferred clinical model and the hospital’s patients remained.

The committee’s chairman, Councillor Jim Clark, said he was delighted Mr Hunt had agreed to a further review.

He said: “We were afraid the Secretary of State might have refused to refer the proposals, on the grounds that they have already been examined once by the panel.

“But the fact that he has done so as a result of our representations is extremely gratifying.

“And the fact that he has asked the panel to carry out the initial assessment within little more than a month is an indication that he believes this to be a matter of some urgency.”

Dr Vicky Pleydell, clinical chief officer of the CCG, said it would do all it could to support the panel and looked forward to hearing the outcome.

She added: “We acknowledge that this is part of the referral process and are pleased that the Secretary of State has highlighted the need to undertake this review quickly.”