A row has broken out over the future of a high dependency baby unit.

The ward at St Richard's Hospital in Chichester, which provides extra care and support for newborn babies, will be axed under plans to make Worthing Hospital the major hospital for the county.

West Sussex Primary Care Trust has been told by a maternity advisory committee that a similar unit should be set up at Worthing as part of the changes planned through the Fit for the Future consultaton.

Campaigners fighting to save services at St Richard's believe losing the Chichester unit, which has taken years to build up, will put young lives at risk.

They also say the plans being drawn up by Worthing will not provide the same level of service for the county.

Neonatal services are split into three categories with a special care unit ranked the lowest at level one and the most specialist intensive care at three.

Worthing currently has a special care baby unit and has been in discussions with the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton about sending it the most needy babies.

The Royal Sussex runs the Trevor Mann, the only specialist intensive care baby unit in Sussex.

Abigail Rowe from the Support St Richard's campaign said: "It is absolutely diabolical the PCT is closing down a unit which not only is established but which has been proven to be very, very good.

"This risks the lives of tiny babies who need such specialised care and ventilating through the night."

Campaigners are now urging the PCT to re-examine its original recommendation to downgrade Chichester and expand Worthing.

Health bosses insist they are working plans to provide the right level of care for newborn babies.

A PCT spokesman said: "We have assurances from Worthing and Southlands Hospitals NHS Trust that the level of neonatal services to be provided will be at least as good as, ideally better than, the current level of neonatal care provided in West Sussex.

"We are aware of informal meetings of senior clinicians, which aim to support and strengthen clinical networks and to start addressing practicalities, including issues around neonatal services.

"However, we remain clear that the PCT will commission a level of neonatal care appropriate for a large unit of around 4,000 births.

A Worthing Hospital spokeswoman said: "Working with both St Richard's Hospital and the PCT, we will ensure that neonatal services provided at Worthing will be better than any which is currently available for the residents of West Sussex.

"We will ensure that the appropriate specialist care is available to provide a top level service and that additional clinical staff are appointed.

"The trust will work closely with St Richard's to achieve this and the existing network with Brighton to support babies requiring the highest level of intensive care continues."

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