The Archbishop of York has warned the NHS must be allowed to put a culture of care over a culture of competition as he visited a children’s heart unit that is threatened with closure.

John Sentamu spoke out for the first time about the possible closure of the children’s heart surgery unit at Leeds General Infirmary, which he said would be devastating and should remain open.

He also said Britain must avoid a winner-takes-all mentality to healthcare in which trusts must go head-to-head in a tough economic climate.

He said: “Whilst I understand the difficult economic situation we face as a country, we should not get into a situation where one trust is played off against another.”

The archbishop was invited to the heart surgery unit following a meeting with NHS staff during a diocesan visit to Ripon and Leeds in 2012.

The NHS review in July 2012 recommended that paediatric heart services should stop at Leeds General Infirmary, and that such surgery should take place at other centres in the country. However this decision is to be re-examined in two independent reviews.

Dr Sentamu said: “It is a great privilege to visit Leeds’ children’s heart surgery unit today and to see the life-saving work that is being undertaken on a daily basis.

“This unit 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 that are required.”

He added: “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 today 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 heart unit at Leeds will have a devastating effect on so many people. It would be terrible news for people across Yorkshire.

“People talk about the ‘choice’ agenda, but actually the choice people want is to be able to go to their local hospital and receive first class care, regardless of where they live. What we need is good co-ordination, clinical collaboration - not a culture of winner-takes-all excellence.”