Health secretary Jeremy Hunt has asked the Independent Reconfiguration Panel to carry out a full review of the decision to close some children’s heart surgery centres.

Mr Hunt has asked the panel to deliver a report by February on whether it believes the recommendations of the Safe and Sustainable Review of children’s congenital heart services will deliver the improvements which it claims.

It follows a long and expensive battle between the Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts, which is proposing the reconfiguration, with the providers who would lose services and campaigners trying to save them.

Mr Hunt’s decision comes after councillors in Lincolnshire and Leicestershire referred the decision to close the Glenfield children’s heart surgery unit at the University Hospitals of Leicester Trust to the health secretary last month. They argued it was not in the best interests of the public.

Campaigners in Leeds said in September they would seek judicial review of the entire consulation process.

In July the joint committee took a decision to remove children’s heart surgery from University Hospitals of Leicester, the Royal Brompton Hospital in London and Leeds General Infirmary. That followed a separate legal victory by the JCPCT over a legal challenge to its proposals by the Royal Brompton.

Although the IRP will now review the paediatric surgery decision, it will not examine the decision to move the ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) service for children from Glenfield Hospital to Birmingham Children’s Hospital, despite campaigners for Leicester services saying the two issues are linked.

The Safe and Sustainable review involved an assessment of all 11 children’s heart surgery units in England and attracted the largest public response to a consultation ever seen by the NHS, including around 75,000 comments.

The decision to reduce children’s heart surgery centres has been based on a view that expertise is spread too thinly and should be concentrated in fewer hospitals.

Sir Neil McKay, chairman of the joint committee, said it would work with the panel review. He added: “The decision on the future of children’s heart services was made after carefully considering a number of factors, which included evidence on patient travel times, transferring ECMO services and demand on surgical services. The IRP has noted the JCPCT’s concern that the process of challenging the decision risks further uncertainty for children’s heart services in England.”