SENIOR Papworth Hospital managers are convinced the time has come to move to Cambridge – half-a-century after the idea was first put forward. They say they are sure that, overwhelmingly, the interests of patients and staff at the 230-bed pioneering heart-

SENIOR Papworth Hospital managers are convinced the time has come to move to Cambridge - half-a-century after the idea was first put forward.

They say they are sure that, overwhelmingly, the interests of patients and staff at the 230-bed pioneering heart-and-lung facility lie close to a major teaching hospital with unrivalled clinical and research facilities and served by better transport links.

Chief executive Stephen Bridge, who joined Papworth in 1988 as general manager, led a campaign against such a move nearly 15 years ago, collecting 118,000 signatures for a petition opposing abandoning the Papworth site - against fierce opposition from the then health authority.

"The reasons were wrong then and the timing was wrong," he told The Hunts Post.

Former Huntingdon MP John Major, who was Prime Minister at the time, agreed ... and the plan was shelved.

The health authority was so miffed at being over-ruled that it put major obstacles in the way of modernisation on the South Cambridgeshire site, which put three years delay into improvements there.

"This is a fantastic hospital," Mr Bridge said. "There's something special about it.

"In our field, we are the best in the country and one of the best in Europe. In some techniques, we are among the top flight in the world.

"But, if we are going to stay there and attract the best specialist doctors and nurses, we must continue to develop and expand."

Chest consultant Dr Diana Bilton, who runs the cystic fibrosis unit and is also director of research and development, is equally passionate.

She said: "Like Stephen Bridge, I live locally. I love this place. We did everything we could to try to work out ways of staying on this site, even though re-developing here would have been a bit more expensive. It just didn't work."

Rebuilding work over seven years on the existing site would have been extremely disruptive to patients and visitors, with the noise from construction work potentially disrupting patients' recovery from major surgery. "The patients must come first," Dr Bilton insisted.

Former and current patients represent the group most opposed to the move in the recent public consultation. But it is hardly surprising they want to protect the institution that has saved lives that were almost beyond repair.

Mr Bridge insisted the proposed move to Cambridge had been on the cards - other than for five years in the 1990s - since the mid-1950s, long before its first ground-breaking heart transplant 25 years ago.

However, the then Addenbrooke's site - opposite what is now the Fitzwilliam Museum in Trumpington Street - was so unsuitable as a teaching hospital that Cambridge University medical graduates did their clinical training elsewhere, usually at London teaching hospitals, such as Guy's, St Thomas's, St Bartholomew's and St Mary's.

The building of what used to be called "New Addenbrooke's" on the present site changed all that and revolutionised Cambridge as a site of world-renowned medical research.

"We need to be physically close to that capability," said Dr Bilton, "if we are to stay at the forefront of what we do well and continue to keep our specialists focused and motivated.

"What's more, if people at Papworth become ill with anything other than heart or lung conditions - when they are already very sick - they need access to treatment close by.

"At the moment, I can be driving to and from Addenbrooke's twice a day for a patient who has also developed a liver condition, for example."

That is not good news for her other patients at Papworth. Both she and Mr Bridge are adamant the welfare of patients, which lies at the centre of the hospital's clinical success and reputation at Papworth, will travel with them to Cambridge - but only if the "planning issues" can be sorted.

Papworth takes patients from the whole of eastern England and from north London. The village's closest railway station is St Neots, difficult to reach from Luton, for example, as is Cambridge station.

Most cystic fibrosis patients are young and, while they would prefer to travel to hospital independently by public transport, have to rely on parents or friends to drive them.

But, until the planned A14 and A428 road improvements are in place, and public transport links to the Addenbrooke's site are improved, a question mark will still hang over the £170million move.

Even if it goes ahead, there will be no moratorium on major investment at Papworth, Mr Bridge insisted.

The hospital needs MRI and CT scanners, which can be justified financially only if they are in almost constant use. Papworth cannot currently use them so intensively.

"But, if we get them here, we will take them with us to Cambridge," Mr Bridge promised.