A SHRINKING NHS budget has "muddied" the argument that closing the Whittington Hospital's A&E department is in the best interests of patients, critics have said.

At a heated public meeting on Thursday, doctors and consultants rallied alongside concerned residents to attack the proposals laid out by NHS chiefs which will radically restructure all hospitals in north London.

Health bosses suggested that closing the emergency department at the Archway hospital, in Magdala Avenue, would mean residents having to travel further afield, but for better treatment - particularly beneficial to stroke and heart attack patients.

But Rachel Tyndall, chairman of the North Central London Sector review panel, was forced to admit that without the changes, the North Central London could face a deficit of between £640 and £860 million by 2015.

Ms Tyndall said: "The NHS will no longer receive the year on year increases we have become used to. We are now entering a period where have to live with the same amount of money that we have at the moment, work with the same number of staff and cope with a rise in treatments and a rise in the need for services.

"We have to plan for the future and not just hope that it won't happen. But these plans have started with clinicians by us asking what is the best way forward for patients."

When asked if the Whittington's future would still be at risk if funding was not an issue, she said: "Maybe. Maybe not.

"Changes would still have to be made but maybe they would not have had to happen so quickly."

Doctor Jacky Davis, of the BMA London region council, said: "As medical professionals, we always support the best medical outcomes for patients. So if the review panel had said these proposals were in the best interests of patients and left it there, we would accept it and go home happy.

"But they have muddied it with talk of finance and saving money. They keep citing how stroke and heart attack patients will receive better care, but these patients account for only a small percentage of those who walk through A&E. There will inevitably be a knock-on effect on nearby hospitals."

Furious residents condemned the proposals as "satanic" and putting lives at risks and were whipped into a frenzy when Richard Sumray, chairman of NHS Haringey, dismissed their concerns as being fuelled by a resistance to change.

Mr Sumray said: "There has to be a very compelling case for any change because people are always very resistant, because generally they like what they have got."

He added: "We are going to go out and consult, and I am not going to say - and no-one would say - what will happen as a consequence of consultation."

Hornsey and Wood Green MP, Lynne Featherstone, who organised the event at Greig City Academy, in High Street, Hornsey, said: "Speaker after speaker condemned the closure.

"I hope NHS bosses will go back to the drawing board and take note of the clear message from our community - the Whittington A&E must stay."

To cope with the loss of the A&E, patients who do not require surgery, would be encouraged to use their neighbourhood health centres, or polyclinics.

And if the Whittington Hospital's emergency accident did get the axe, it would be replaced with a 24-hour Urgent Care centre, staffed by nurses and GPs treating minor medical emergencies.

A formal consultation will be launched in Autumn, Ms Tyndall said, adding that until then no decisions had been made.

The panel will now look at seven different "options for change", before shortlisting the best and launching a formal consultation expected as early as October 2010.

A final decision by a board of NHS bosses in Barnet, Enfield, Haringey, Islington and Camden, will be taken in March 2011.