Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, Britain has witnessed an outpouring of collective respect for the NHS and its workers. The weekly “Clap for Our Carers” is now a hallowed Thursday evening tradition, with people – and, uh, ferries – of all political persuasions applauding from their homes. Rainbow street art and children’s paintings adorn public spaces and windows, and celebrities are falling over themselves to “say thank you” to doctors, nurses and other live-saving medical workers. This week, five commemorative letterboxes were installed across the country, painted blue and emblazoned with the words, “Thank you, NHS.”
Amid all this fervour, over 100 healthcare professionals have died, with ongoing concerns that workers have insufficient supplies of PPE. Clapping for the NHS, while a sweet gesture, does little to ameliorate these problems. Of course, if you wanted to do something more concrete to help the NHS, you could follow the fund-raising example of Captain Tom Moore. The retired army officer raised more than £30 million for NHS Charities Together walking laps of his garden, and has subsequently suffered the indignity of being turned into a balloon animal and a series of cakes.
As VICE UK has previously reported, taxpayer-funded public institutions must not be treated as charities, to be funded by bake-sales and games of tombola. We already “donate” to the NHS through tax. If that tax isn’t reaching hospitals, it’s because the Conservative government has been underfunding our health service for years, along with outsourcing an increasing number of its services to private providers.
We spoke to NHS workers for their thoughts on the best ways the general public can help support the NHS – other than clapping.
Continue to Use NHS Services
Eleanor, a doctor based in Glasgow, is concerned that people might be put off from getting the non-coronavirus-related care they need during the pandemic. “I’ve seen a lot of posts on social media lately which say something like, ‘We’ve finally seen that when people are told not to go to their GP or A and E for bullshit reasons, then A and E is much quieter. This proves that under normal circumstances, people are wasting the NHS’s time.’ I think that’s a load of nonsense.”
Not seeking medical help when you need it causes more harm than good for the health service in the long term. “The gap we’re seeing in terms of how quiet both A and E and GP surgeries are now is going to come back to haunt us,” Eleanor says. “All of the stuff we would have dealt with now, we’ll have to deal with in two months and it will be twice as bad.”
The NHS belongs to you – if you think you need to use it, then use it. Don’t be put off by people using the pandemic to create a hierarchy of healthcare needs, which is often motivated by their own political agenda.
Think Twice Before You Call NHS Workers “Heroes”
For the most part, when people talk about NHS workers as “heroes”, it is based on sincere feelings of respect and admiration. Valorising NHS staff is no bad thing and may well prove useful further down the line, when Tory politicians stop clapping on their doorsteps and resume their usual disdain for public sector workers. But talk of heroism runs the risk of imposing a kind of martyrdom on healthcare workers, and distracts from the fact that doing their jobs shouldn't mean risking thier lives.
“The clapping creates this slightly hysterical culture of heroism,” says Giancarlo, a doctor also based in Glasgow. “The whole ‘we’ll meet again’ thing – people talking like we’re at war. All of this makes it easier for the general public to swallow the pill that there’s going to be some sacrifices, that it’s fine for people to die on the battlefield. The reality is people shouldn’t have to die when they go to work.”
What makes this particularly concerning is that BAME people are dying of COVID-19 at a higher rate than white people, including those within the NHS workforce. Some NHS trusts have gone so far as to class BAME staff as “vulnerable and at risk”, providing them with priority testing and access to PPE. The “heroic” sacrifices that these NHS workers are expected to make can create a racialised expectation of whose bodies will be lost in the fight against coronavirus.
“The work NHS workers do is very heroic and to be respected and appreciated,” says Joe, a nurse in Birmingham. “But I’m against the fact that people’s deaths are being glamorised as an heroic act when, the truth is, more could have been done to prevent them.”
Of course, none of this is to say that describing NHS workers as heroic is bad in itself, but we should be careful about the politics that this kind of language can play into.
Respect the Lockdown
This is an obvious one, sure, but it really is one of the best things you can do to support NHS workers. “Large amounts of people have still been going to parks, parties and beaches – especially during Easter weekend when the sun was shining,” says Joe. “Most egregiously, we all saw the massive crowd on Westminster Bridge, where social distancing was non-existent. Ironically, many of those people could end up needing NHS care thereby putting it under more strain.”
Please don’t have a jacuzzi party, as I saw someone on Instagram do recently – even if it is your birthday.
Help to Ensure That Everyone Has Access to Healthcare
Coronavirus can only be tackled if everyone has access to treatment. Unfortunately, the British government’s “hostile environment” policy – a legacy of the 2010 coalition government aimed at making life in the UK as difficult as possible for undocumented migrants – means that this isn’t always the case.
Bryony Hopkinshaw is a paediatric doctor based in London. “As a doctor, I know that NHS charging policies and the links between the NHS and the Home Office are very dangerous to families with insecure immigration status,” she says. In 2018, the government was forced to abandon a scheme that used NHS data to track down patients believed to be breaching immigration rules. “People are scared of accessing healthcare, and even if they do reach hospitals they often experience significant barriers. COVID-19 means it is more important than ever for people to be able to access healthcare without fear. I am worried that far too many of our patients are stuck at home, often in insecure and overcrowded accommodation, and too scared of being billed or reported to seek care.”
If you want to support migrants’ access to healthcare rights in the UK, you can add your name to this letter from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, calling on the Home Secretary for the suspension of all NHS charging and data-sharing with immigration enforcement. You can also write to your MP and ask them to support this early day motion suspending the current NHS charging legislation, and sending a “clear message to migrant communities that they can seek care when they need it.”
Write to Your Local MP Demanding PPE for All Healthcare Workers
“I would like to see more of the general public speak up to hold the government more accountable,” says Joe, “and push it to ensure proper safety and protection for NHS staff.” One way to do this is by writing to your MP about it.
Never, Ever Vote Tory Again
There has been debate about whether or not you’re allowed to clap for the carers if you voted Conservative, the party responsible for decimating the NHS and other public institutions, at the last election. The answer, of course, is that you may clap – as long as you promise to never vote Tory again.
“There’s no point in clapping for these supporters while we tolerate politicians that are going to underfund and underpay all of these workers and services,” says Giancarlo.
Eleanor agrees: “People need to see through the Tory spin a bit. The Conservatives are explicitly a party that isn’t for nationalised services, and when people hear that from people on the left, they think it’s just a take or the Labour party being cynical. But that is what conservatism is.”
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