Return of the babysnatchers?

Ignore the headlines: we need less hospital security, not more.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

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Topics Politics

The abduction of a newly born baby from a maternity ward at Wordsley Hospital in Stourbridge in the West Midlands over the weekend has provoked a predictable chorus of demands for tightening up hospital security.

But given that hospitals are already as well-guarded as prisons, surely a more sensible response would be to abandon security measures altogether?

As all the news reports proclaim, having your baby stolen is every mother’s worst nightmare. Yet two things emerge from all the reports on the Stourbridge maternity snatch: baby abductions are very rare (not even one a year in the UK); and abducted babies are invariably found and returned to their parents within days, if not hours (as happened at Stourbridge).

Because of its mythic nightmare status, every baby abduction is guaranteed major national publicity. This in turn generates demands for ever-tighter hospital security. And this pressure has reinforced the wider drive to introduce measures designed to prevent criminal activity in hospitals and other public buildings.

Over the past decade, there has been a major expansion in the employment of security guards in hospitals and the introduction of a panoply of devices supposed to increase the safety of patients and staff alike.

Because serious thugs can earn much better money as bouncers in pubs and clubs (where they can supplement their wages by selling drugs, running protection rackets, as well as causing more trouble than they prevent), hospital security staff tend to be physically unimposing. Some compensate for this by wearing paramilitary uniforms and cultivating a surly demeanour. (Just don’t ask them the way to the ward because they won’t know where it is – though they may be able to recite the trust’s mission statement.)

Most big hospitals are now equipped with closed circuit television monitoring systems. Banks of monitors offer images of empty corridors – if anybody is watching them. Wards are now locked and access is only achieved by having the right key card or knowing the number for the combination lock – or after being interrogated via an intercom. Staff are all equipped with laminated identity badges, to be worn around the neck in the style of a pet dog.

In the maternity ward – the inner sanctum of the hospital fortress – electronic tagging of the newborn is regarded as state of the art in security technology. Ironically, such a system was due to be introduced in Wordsley Hospital, though its existing controls are said to be up to the standards laid down in Safe and Sound: Security in NHS Maternity Wards, the official guidelines issued in response to a number of abductions in the mid-1990s.

As the Wordsley abduction confirms, all these security measures are ineffective against people determined to snatch a baby – or, indeed, those who intend to carry out any other criminal activity in a hospital. As father of the kidnapped baby, Richard Rice, said: ‘If somebody wants to snatch a baby…and they are really determined to do so, then no amount of security will stop them.’ It is quite obvious that, in buildings through which there are large flows of people, any security measure other than the vigilance of staff and patients is not going to work.

However, the employment of large numbers of officious guards deploying intrusive technology is likely to be a nuisance to patients and their visitors. Only the naive will feel more secure; anybody else is likely to feel somewhat anxious and intimidated. Hospital security is already an immense inconvenience to hospital staff, whose movements around the hospital are subjected to constant interference.

These measures may even prove dangerous to patient health: in a hospital where I once worked, a resuscitation team had to wait some minutes to gain access to a locked ward in response to a cardiac arrest call.

Intrusive – but ineffective – security procedures are, of course, not peculiar to hospitals. In our anxious age they are common to schools (one in Hackney has a perimeter fence that resembles a detention camp) and offices. Fears about crime, and the mounting sense of danger from other people, drive a security industry that consumes vast quantities of public resources – and generates greater insecurity.

I propose a simple measure to enhance public safety: abandon all professional security systems in hospitals, starting in maternity wards. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that if hospital staff and parents kept an eye on babies then everybody could feel safer and sleep more soundly.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is the author of MMR and Autism, Routledge, 2004 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and The Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle, Routledge, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA). He is also a contributor to Alternative Medicine: Should We Swallow It? Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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Topics Politics

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