Jeremy Laurance: When things go wrong, every second counts

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No area of medicine raises fiercer emotions than the care of women in childbirth – especially when safety is in doubt, as it is in Britain's maternity service today.

Campaigners defending their local maternity unit protest at the "conveyor belt" experience of the "baby factories" which they say is degrading and dehumanising. Meanwhile senior doctors point to statistics showing nine out of 10 mothers who died from pre-eclampsia had substandard care and ask: are we pushing normality too far?

The challenge in childbirth is that when things go wrong they can do so quickly, with potentially catastrophic consequences. The problem is not that staff do the wrong things but that when things are going wrong they fail to notice.

With the NHS facing the toughest financial challenge in its history, we are told trusts cannot afford extra resources. Yet within days of being threatened with prosecution, Queen's Hospital, Romford, found 50 extra midwives. Why did it take threats for managers to act? And how many others are playing the same dangerous game?