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Saturday, 6 December, 1997, 15:34 GMT
Hospital security called into question
Karli Hawthorne
How easy was it for someone to snatch Karli Hawthorne?
Security at the maternity sections of British hospitals is under review after a new-born baby was snatched from a hospital in southern England.

The baby was found unharmed and has been reunited with her mother. Police have arrested a woman.

The abduction of a baby from a hospital in the English Midlands three years ago led to measures such as video surveillance and entry phones to internal doors in maternity wards.

But medical staff are aware that there is always a risk. The Chief Executive of the NHS Confederation, Steven Thornton, said: "Since 1994 hospitals have spent a great deal of time and effort, and money, improving their security.

"Hospitals are not prisons, and security is not the first thing on the minds of hospital staff. They are there to care for and treat patients."

Mr Thornton stressed the importance of senior management regarding security as a priority and being prepared to invest in it.

He also said it was important that patients understood the importance of security, with patients looking out for each other's safety, particularly in maternity units.

Many hospitals have increased security by installing closed circuit television cameras and restricting access.

An electronic tagging system for babies has also been introduced in some hospitals. The system involves a tag being put around a baby's ankle which reponds to sensor panels located at hospital exits.

If the baby is taken through the sensor an alarm goes off and the hospital's security team alerted.

May Cox-Brown, chief midwife at City Maternity Hospital, Nottingham, which introduced a tagging system for babies at the hospital three years ago, says tagging is a good security measure but not the sole factor of effective security.

She said vigilance by staff and parents combined to make the most secure system complete.

"I don't think one system alone is ever adequate," she said. "I think it's a combination of security measure that make the system secure."

"We ask parents to be vigilant and not allow any midwife, nurse or doctor, to take their baby away from their bedside unless she or he is wearing a hospital name badge and we advise them to challenge staff who are not wearing a form of identity."

But some in the profession have doubts about tagging babies. Mr Thornton warned that electronic tagging technology had not been perfected and could induce a dangerous false sense of security.

Trevor Workman, in charge of security at the Queen's Medical Centre, Nottingham, where Abbie Humphries was snatched, agrees that tagging is not the single solution.

He said: "Baby tagging is very effective and reliable but we do not believe that it is a single factor which gives us effective security.

"There are many factors, not least vigilance by staff and the high-profile security culture within the organisation."

Despite investing heavily in new security measures at the hospital over the past three years, Mr Workman said there always remained an element of risk.

"There is always a risk and even after having done all we have done there is no way that you could guarantee that it wouldn't happen again," he said.

"There's always a human element and no matter how much money you spend on physical security someone can probably, well-meaningly, open a door and hold it open for someone else going in and out, and that's the way it can happen."

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