‘Utterly Demoralising’: NHS Staff on Claim Nobody Worked Harder Than Boris Johnson During Pandemic

VICE World News hears from NHS workers after a UK government minister said “nobody” had worked harder than the prime minister in responding to COVID.
January 27, 2021, 8:49pm
‘Utterly Demoralising’: NHS Staff on Claim Nobody Worked Harder Than Boris Johnson During Pandemic
Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street for PMQs on Wednesday. Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images

This week the UK reached the grim milestone of 100,000 coronavirus deaths, giving it the highest COVID death toll in Europe.

In light of the bleak figure, which well exceeded the government’s prediction that 50,000 deaths would be a “worst-case scenario”, critics have pointed out many government decisions may have contributed to the spread of the disease, such as imposing lockdowns late despite advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), allowing houses outside of London to mix over Christmas with knowledge of a new coronavirus variant, or schemes like Eat Out to Help Out, which may have caused one-sixth of coronavirus clusters in the summer. 

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Speaking on Wednesday, Housing and Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick defended Boris Johnson’s handling of the government’s COVID response by telling Sky News that “nobody has worked harder than the prime minister.”

We asked NHS workers on the front lines of the COVID crisis whether they agreed with that.

“I underestimated the physical and emotional toll it would take on me”

Every single day I'm working with people that have worked harder, and continue to work harder, than [the Prime Minister].

This year has been a truly shocking introduction to my new career in the NHS. I knew it would be hard, but I underestimated the physical and emotional toll it would take on me. I trained in radiotherapy because I wanted to help people with cancer. One of the best parts about this job in ordinary times is that you see your patients every day for the entirety of their treatment. One of the toughest aspects of the job during COVID times is the lack of the simple things, like being allowed to hold their hand when they're upset, and the fact they can't really see us smiling at them anymore because we're covered in PPE. We're exhausted.

I did my first 12-hour night shift in intensive care back in December. There was no real training or preparation because they don't have the resources to spare to do that. Intensive care is a different world if you're not used to it. I've never seen anyone on a ventilator before, never mind 35 people. The first person we "deproned" [turning a patient onto their front] went into cardiac arrest right before my eyes and there was nothing we could do to save him. It was horrific. I wanted to just get out of there but I had to stay and carry on helping the rest of the patients. It's scarred me for sure. I'll never forget it. Everyone is trying so, so hard but there are too many COVID patients and we just can't save them all. The Tories should hang their heads in shame, I'm ashamed of this country. Anon, Therapeutic Radiographer 

“‘Hard work’ has been calling sometimes five or more families a day and telling them that they have lost a relative”

Traditionally in my working environment, [hard work] is things such as the number of hours worked without a break or number of 13-hour shifts worked in a row. But during the past year, it hasn’t stopped there. “Hard work” has been redefined as we have been completely pushed beyond our limits. “Hard work” has been calling sometimes five or more families a day and telling them that they have lost a relative, feeling emotions of grief alongside them. “Hard work” has been four members of staff looking after 28 very poorly patients – their lives in our hands. Johnson has undoubtedly faced “hard work” during the past year but on no terms is his situation an equal comparison to the struggles that we have faced on the frontline. Robert Jenrick suggesting that Johnson has worked harder than everybody else, especially the NHS is utterly demoralising. 

The hardest day for me was the day I came to realise we were sinking and completely overwhelmed. There were four of us looking after 28 COVID patients, and sadly one had passed away, alone. The usual protocol is to certify and then complete care after death within the hour. There were no doctors available to certify the death and the four of us working on the ward had to prioritise the poorly 27 patients who were still alive. It was 4-5 hours before the patient that had passed away was sent to the morgue. I felt awful, I think I cried my entire journey home. Anon, Trainee Nurse Associate. 

“The weeks around Christmas and New Year were the worst by far”

I feel many people have worked very hard during the pandemic, above and beyond what is expected of them. I can appreciate that it is a very stressful time for the PM and many things he has to consider, but I do feel there are people up and down the country working in healthcare and beyond who are sacrificing their time, mental, and physical well-being to help the country through this. It is a comment that hasn’t been thought through and angers me as highlights that some people in politics are just disconnected from what is happening in towns and cities about the country.

I have worked in two emergency department throughout the past year. During the first wave I was in a rural hospital and we coped well. However, during the winter I have been working in a London hospital. It has been extremely hard work, for everyone in the department from porters to doctors. It’s hard to pick out one moment as I don’t think I’ve had enough time to fully process it all. The weeks around Christmas and New Year were the worst by far, ambulances backed up, no beds in the hospital and people passing away in the department. I think the nights the few days before Christmas were the worst, it was tough and patients kept coming and I knew there would be no relief over the coming weeks, I had cancelled all plans to see family and just knew it was going to be a dark month. Anon, Emergency Department Doctor.

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“Over 600 of us died from the virus last year”

There is no doubt that government ministers and the prime minister have a tough job with long hours and a great deal of responsibility.

But there is just no comparison between work based around the Houses of Parliament and offices in Whitehall. While most people are trying to avoid contact with COVID-19, we are coming into work every day in the thick of it. Over 600 of us died from the virus last year. Not only are we at risk but we are exposed day in day out to distressing events. Desperately sick, frightened and dying patients, anxious, angry, bewildered and bereaved families. Covering extra shifts for colleagues who have gone off sick and after 11 months it has caught up with many of us. For a privileged millionaire like Robert Jenrick to be telling us that another privileged millionaire in the Prime Minister has worked harder than anyone during the pandemic is spectacularly ill-judged and offensive and even more so when by common consent this government's handling of the pandemic response and the communication around it has been inept, dishonest and at time bordering on corrupt. David Oliver, Consultant Physician.

“[Boris Johnson] hasn’t done [hard work] wearing a hazmat suit and a respiratory mask around people who are dying”

I think that the prime minister probably has been working hard and staying up late and making difficult decisions, but he hasn’t done it wearing a hazmat suit and a respiratory mask around people who are dying with an infectious disease. Anon, Paediatric Doctor.