Every Thursday at 7:58PM the same. “Oh shit.”
Usually I am chopping stuff for dinner or watching TV. “It’s the clap,” I remember aloud. My flatmate and I scramble over to the bay window in the living room, then wait a few seconds for our phones to strike eight. The people in the cul-de-sac below are usually the first to start, and our opposite neighbours, one of whom has taken to banging a pot with a wooden spoon, follow.
Like those who live either side of me, I lean out of the window and clap and cheer for a minute or so – sometimes cars bombing down the road beep their horns. And yet, since the very first week joining in with “Clap for Carers,” a weekly round of applause intended to show support for key workers during the coronavirus crisis, I have felt a bit uneasy.
There’s a fairly obvious cognitive dissonance when it comes to the nation applauding the workers of a health service that in December, it voted in its swathes to underfund, via the election of another Conservative majority government. Of course I want to applaud all of the workers who are doing their best to help people in the face of unthinkable illness. But I am also maddened by the hypocrisy of Tory voters doing so, and by the public’s easy, unquestioning adoption of terms like “NHS heroes” via the mainstream media, when NHS workers (and all of the other key workers) are having to be much braver in their current conditions than they would be if they were properly outfitted and compensated for their work.
In a recent Financial Times article, the academic and writer Gary Younge wrote of his feelings about the Thursday night applause: “I’m clapping with pride that I live in a nation that has created and sustained this, but also with rage that [NHS front line workers] still do not all have the protective equipment or testing they need, and with hope that one day soon they’ll get the pay they deserve and the service the investment it needs.”
LISTEN: "WTF NHS" – a podcast about Britain’s health service from the VENT Documentaries series, produced by VICE UK and the young people of Brent.
NHS workers themselves have mixed views about the clap. One nurse in Glasgow* tells me: “At the beginning of the pandemic, I didn’t really care about the clapping on a Thursday night. I thought it was a gimmick, and that there were more useful things that people could do to show their appreciation.” After a while, however, she changed her mind. “Seeing how others have reacted and enthusiastically embraced the idea where I live, while social distancing, has made me realise that for a lot of people it’s one of the few ways that they can show their gratitude,” she explains.
Others, however, are less keen. “It was lovely to start with, but now I just don't get it, or understand why rainbows or post boxes painted blue would make me happy about being so under-appreciated,” a mental health nurse in Birmingham, who has been working for 50 hours a week during the pandemic, says. “I just want a pay rise, or maybe a tax-free month, or something like that.”
It would be uncontroversial to say that the central commitment of the NHS – free healthcare for everyone in Britain, regardless of their economic status – is based on socialist principles. Founded in 1948 by Clement Attlee’s Labour government, it was part of a series of measures aimed at restructuring post-war Britain on the strength of nationalised ownership and the eradication of poverty. Part of this was a national health service, the brainchild of then-health minister Aneurin “Nye” Bevan. Seventy years later, the service remains an enduring achievement of the Attlee government, surviving Thatcher’s stripping of the welfare state, and – for now, at least – the UK’s head-first dive into the rampant capitalism propagated by the Conservative Party.
The reality of the UK in 2020 is this: while the NHS is universally beloved across demographics, and remains a huge source of national pride, the public has, for a decade, also elected successive Conservative governments which have attempted to begin privatising parts of the health service and effectively frozen nurses’ pay, among other slights on it. Just this week, Boris Johnson was forced into a U-turn on the NHS surcharge for immigrants (itself worrying enough) being applied to NHS staff from overseas.
As such, some of the NHS workers I spoke to say they find it difficult to see themselves applauded by Conservative politicians, including one bereavement specialist nurse in London. “Week one, I was moved. I cried as my red raw hands bled from all the hand washing, with PPE mask dents in my face. Week two, I cried again,” she remembers. After this, however, her feelings changed.
She continues: “The general public clapping was nice – it felt genuine. But watching Tory politicians have the nerve to stand and applaud us, when they had actively voted against our pay rises, actively reduced the amount of PPE we had, and were literally throwing us to the slaughter, was frankly disgusting.”
Other NHS staffers are confused by public behaviour. A GP in Coventry shares a story of her local applause being plagued by noisy one-upmanship that disturbed NHS staff on night shifts, while a doctor in Derbyshire, whose girlfriend is also an NHS doctor, tells me that they hide inside their home during the Thursday night clap. “We find it absolutely mortifying,” he says.
Why is it that the people who voted to give the Tories their biggest majority since 1987 also clap for the NHS every Thursday? Dr. Nikhil Sengupta, a lecturer in Social and Organisational Psychology at the University of Kent, breaks it down: “The NHS clap is popular because it’s one of the few ways people can connect with their communities, and actively show support for those who are keeping the rest of us safe and well,” he says. “From a psychological perspective, it helps fulfil needs that people have found particularly hard to meet during the lockdown – the need to belong, and to contribute to the common good.”
Such contributions, however, haven’t only come from the Thursday night applause. Restaurants from chains to small businesses have been donating food and drinks to NHS workers; some clothing brands have put their efforts into manufacturing scrubs and face masks, and supermarkets and other shops have introduced queue-jumping measures for key workers, including NHS staff. The nurse in Glasgow tells me that she’s been able to jump lines a few times, and has received only kind feedback from members of the public when doing so.
Elsewhere, the public has been contributing to grassroots fundraisers. One such fundraiser is spearheaded by lawyer Alex Adams and clinician Dr. Sharon Raymond, and is currently funding PPE for key workers (including staff in care homes and domestic abuse shelters), an oxygen saturation probe delivery scheme, and a "COVID Cab Service" – with PPE and protective screens for drivers – to help patients get to important hospital appointments at this time.
Speaking with Adams over the phone, I ask whether he thinks that initiatives like his would be necessary, regardless of the level of funding the NHS received from the government. He makes a point of not wanting to be politically partisan, but believes that they would: “We know how slow things can be within bureaucratic systems from our NHS colleagues,” he explains. “We were hearing that they were going to work unprotected, and we wanted to do something to make sure they weren’t. Large institutions by necessity move quite slowly, and what small organisations or grassroots campaigns tend to do is act in an incredibly agile manner, and work directly with frontline practitioners. It’s a bit of a luxury to be able to do that.”
So far, Adams' fundraiser has generated almost £110,000. He describes the public response as “amazing and heartwarming,” though he worries that “people are getting COVID fatigue and charity fatigue, but the work we’re doing needs to be sustained.”
It’s still unclear how long the coronavirus pandemic will go on for, and we do not know how many more lives will be lost, or if we will see a second wave of mass infection. Dr. Nikhil believes that the public well-wishing, as shown through the NHS applause, can be harnessed for more good, even – and perhaps especially – if the NHS is hit with further funding cuts.
“There is certainly research showing that symbolic gestures can become a way of avoiding difficult real-world change, but this is not inevitable. I think the popularity of the NHS clap presents an opportunity to highlight how people’s values can be translated into policy changes that would protect and empower frontline workers. This is why key workers have started to talk about what they would like to see happen after the applause,” he says, pointing me to the #AfterTheApplause Twitter hashtag.
Many of the NHS workers I spoke to are also thinking about the future. “This clap needs to be the first signal of change,” says an NHS support worker in London “And if there is no change, the clap was just hollow and to make people feel they were doing something good.”
A doctor in Leeds, meanwhile, has an alternative to the Thursday night applause. “Rather than a clap these days, I would rather we gathered on our doorsteps to chant or roar with the rage of those that have been let down by our leaders," she says. "I’d rather we all focused on creating cohesive change to supporting the NHS – and everyone – properly.”
*All of the NHS workers featured in this article chose to contribute anonymously, so are identified instead by their role and current location.
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