Jeremy Laurance: How could human beings ignore pleas by those in pain?

In years to come people will recall the image of a midwife standing over a woman with a knife

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The first question asked at yesterday's press conference to launch the Care Quality Commission's devastating report into the Barking Havering and Redbridge NHS trust was: "How does a person who tells a woman in labour: 'Hurry up or I will cut you' get a job in the NHS?" It was the right question, but nobody had an answer. It is impossible to read the report without a sense of outrage. How could human beings ignore women begging for help with pain, refuse to assist with personal hygiene or scold those whose labour was delayed because their shift was finishing? Each NHS scandal is recognisable from a single image. For the Bristol Children's Heart Surgery disaster in the 1990s, which gave rise to the panoply of NHS regulation, it is the line of black coffins, each no bigger than a shoe box, laid out on the pavement outside the General Medical Council, representing the lives of the babies that had been lost. For the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust, where between 400 and 1,200 excess deaths occurred, it is the patients left so long without water they were forced to drink from flower vases. In years to come, people will recall the Barking Havering and Redbridge scandal from the image of a midwife standing over a labouring woman, threatening her with a knife.

The NHS is awash with regulators, tests of competence and controls on performance. Early warning systems abound – the latest published yesterday in the shape of a new death rate indicator. But nothing, it seems, can guarantee we will be cared for, our needs attended to or that we will be shown ordinary human compassion.

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