Clap for Carers was a nice idea, but it’s ended up as a pointless, empty gesture, one that now borders on an insult. I was on shift as a hospital porter when the first clap happened. I found it genuinely enjoyable and uplifting as a one-off event. However, by the second week, it was already starting to seem gratuitous, and by the time it ended gratuitousness had given way to ridiculousness. Many of my NHS colleagues who worked through the pandemic remain underpaid. Most staff feel that a pay rise would be a better reward than some muted applause.
Of course, being heroes, we’re held to a certain standard of behaviour. In the case of the NHS, this means obeying a series of institutional omertàs. NHS England have attempted to assert full media control during the pandemic, including monitoring staff social media. When I told the communications department at my trust that I was being interviewed about the pandemic, they attempted to censor the (very tame) interview in advance. I could bypass them – because as I was a union representative – but it was a vivid example of how many NHS bureaucrats would rather hide institutional failures behind the ‘heroism’ of their staff. In a grim irony, the purpose of my interview was this: to remind people that the NHS isn’t just doctors and nurses. All staff have gone through extremes; two of the first National Health Service staff to die in the pandemic were porters at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.
Discussion of NHS staff deaths is important. According to Matt Hancock, we are now at a stage where staff are ‘putting their lives on the line everyday’. Personally, I would rather not have my death co-opted into a narrative of heroic sacrifice. And the idea of sacrifice has helped normalise the grotesque body count of NHS staff who have died from COVID-19 (which currently stands at more than 600). It goes without saying that were the NHS staffed and stocked properly, then some of these staff would still be alive.
Early in the pandemic, a shortage of PPE placed staff at risk. In Northwick Park Hospital, three nurses used improvised PPE made out of bin bags: they subsequently tested positive for coronavirus. I know of colleagues who have had to take similar risks, and it will all be hushed up. Indeed, towards the end of the first wave I could see that the increased quantity of our PPE had an inverse relationship with its quality. The son of Dr Peter Tun, who died on 13 April aged just 62, has explicitly stated that his father died because of a lack of PPE. An inquiry might provide answers on this, though inquests into NHS staff deaths aren’t currently permitted. l won’t hold my breath.
Last year, when my colleagues and I were dragged off shift, outside the hospital, all to make a show of observing a minute’s silence for NHS staff who had died in the pandemic, I felt almost disgusted. Not with the managers who had been told to ensure that the minute’s silence was observed – appearances are vital. It was simply the speed with which dead staff were being cast as valiant hearts now lying tranquilly.
As we all know, for every hero there must always be a villain. In the last year, we’ve created a false division between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ frontline workers. While NHS staff were unreservedly lauded as heroes, teachers were accused of selfishly sacrificing children’s education. The concerns about children’s education are valid, though as with the NHS, the Government has been reluctant to work round the problem. The recent closure of schools shows that the teaching unions’ fears were not unfounded.
Who will be the next group to become villains? Most likely, it will be the British public. Downing Street is continually briefing that the rising number of cases is due to people not following their guidelines, and nothing to do with the Government’s failure to provide adequate sick pay or a functioning test and trace system.
For me and my colleagues, being a hero hasn’t amounted to anything. What was the result of our heroism? Only being asked to do the same thing all over again, this time in a state of utter exhaustion. More of these heroes need to come forward. They need to tell their stories before the narrative once again turns them into gold. The pandemic means that the achievements of the common NHS worker became ever more tremendous, as superhuman qualities are demanded everywhere, yet they still have nothing to show for it. On January 6, Health Service Journal reported that London hospitals were on the verge of being overwhelmed, and on January 8, Sadiq Khan declared a ‘Major Incident’ in London, meaning that emergency services are overwhelmed. It is a realistic expectation that this will soon be the case across the country.
In the first wave, the hospital that I worked at had three coronavirus wards and an expanded ITU. Now it has had to increase that capacity to nine wards, with most of the patients under sixty. Worse still, the number of staff available is constantly decreasing, and wards are constantly having to send staff to ITU to act as replacements.
This is the reality of having to delegate limited resources. It is also the immediate future of NHS workers until the vaccine programme has reached its goals. As of January 10, 46,000 NHS staff were absent due to illness, while 620 NHS and Social Care staff have died because of coronavirus – though this figure only accounts for frontline staff. There may yet be more praise heaped upon NHS staff, but they are not heroes. They are victims of structural and policy failures. Praise is meaningless if it is not accompanied by lasting change. That is the least they deserve.