The government seems to be expecting frontline NHS personnel to sacrifice themselves — and is creating a moral obligation that they can’t refuse.
Last week the government and others asked the population to open their doors and windows and applaud to show their appreciation for the NHS. The Prime Minister and Chancellor stood outside No 10 and joined in, and there were numerous videos of the event that were both heart-warming and eerie. Many NHS workers went online afterwards to say how much they appreciated this gesture.
However, there were some doctors and nurses who said thanks, but… where the but pointed out that for the past several years whilst the Tories have been in power, the NHS has been catastrophically under-funded and under-resourced, with the business model and ongoing privatisation directly downgrading the health service’s capability to deal with a regular winter flu outbreak, let alone a global pandemic.
These people were vilified online for being ungrateful, even being accused of working against the combined effort to fight the disease.
There is another such case of a nurse with longstanding medical conditions and a young family who refused to treat Covid-19 patients without proper personal protection equipment (PPE). She has received unbelievable levels of hate — for simply asking for the absolute minimum to protect her life, and the lives and health of her family.
In the media, the fact that healthcare workers are literally working themselves beyond the point of exhaustion is reported as something to be expected, as normal, whilst many have been hospitalised, some fighting for their lives, as a combination of extreme fatigue and treating contagious patients for hours without proper equipment puts them at increased risk.
At the same time, some health workers across the world have actually threatened to go on strike to demand proper equipment to protect themselves and their patients.
Whilst the applause was going on many people tweeted the video of the last time the Tories cheered and applauded about the NHS — when they defeated a bill that would have provided them with a pay rise. The hypocrisy behind this action to salute NHS workers at this time — including let’s not forget unpaid student nurses facing massive debt — is galling.
The attitude of the government towards the frontline staff appears to be nothing short of monstrous. If the government’s original policy of ‘herd immunity’ had been allowed to continue, hundreds of NHS staff would have died as a result. It’s as if Johnson and the Health Secretary Hancock were WWI generals, sat safely behind the lines, ordering NHS workers to go over the top.
This week they shared the fact that they both have tested positive for the virus — and I sincerely wish them both a safe and speedy recovery. But at the same time, I firmly believe that they both should have to answer for their actions after the crisis has passed.
There have been similar calls from the right-wing media in the UK and the US not to ‘politicise’ the pandemic, that we should in effect Keep Calm and Carry On (but of course even that propaganda poster campaign from 1939 was a colossal failure). In the UK, it would seem that it was only political, scientific and international pressure that forced the government to take the belated action that it did.
In times of war or national crisis it can be argued that propaganda serves a legitimate purpose, whether that is through the creation of myth to hide the truth, to engender and feed a notion of national identity, or just to boost morale — from the constant rewriting of the truth over the initial response to the outbreak or the broadcast of the popular radio drama The Archers where the fictional village of Ambridge continues in a world where the pandemic never occurred. So, what function did the mass applause actually serve?
Without doubt this was a morale boost for the population at large rather than a direct vote of thanks to the NHS workers. A better thanks would have been the immediate dispatch of adequate PPE, a cancelling of student debt for doctors and nurses, a stop on all utility and housing bills for frontline NHS staff — staff that are still receiving fines for parking their cars at work! The applause event cost the government nothing — either in money or in compromising their ideology that is opposed to universal healthcare.
It also lays this expectation on NHS staff, that despite the poor conditions and unacceptable risk, they should continue without complaint to potentially sacrifice themselves. But I would argue that the public and certainly not the government, have the right to make this demand under such circumstances. The NHS is not militarised, and though many if not all of the workers will have gone into those careers prepared to make personal sacrifice for the benefit of others, this philanthropic vocation should not be so readily taken for granted and abused.
So what I would say is this — if you want to appreciate and give thanks to the wonderful people in the NHS — from the cleaners to the consultants — then follow the WHO and government advice. Stay at home, wash your hands, observe social distancing — and put pressure on the government to give the NHS the funding, resource and true respect it deserves.