The solution announced last week by the Prime Minister, and apparently welcomed by the Royal College of Nursing, is the creation of a new kind of nurse: the supernurse or nurse consultant. Forget bedpans and making beds with "hospital corners". This new executive will run clinics, be in charge of nursing teams and earn more than pounds 26,500 a year.
Mr Blair promoted his plan as a way of enabling nurses to take more responsibility while remaining close to patients and to earn as much as a junior doctor. That, said the approving RCN, is exactly what the nurses want. And therein lies the dilemma: what they want, what is good for them, is not necessarily good for their patients.
The odds seem stacked against recovery when one visits a hospital today. The staff are stressed, the queues are long, the place is anonymous. People complain of poor food lacking in nutrition, dirty bathrooms, and an emphasis on technology rather than care. In situations like that, a supernurse at the top of her profession is not a reassuring figure. We need nurses to be people we can talk to; staff with time, energy and commitment. We don't need nurses who want to sweep traditional nursing aside for pseudo- doctoring.
What is happening in the nursing profession is symptomatic of the growing conflict in many areas of work between those who do the job and the rest of us at the receiving end. They aspire to convert a traditional, unadventurous job into something more glamorous, more 21st-century, but the rest of us rarely want change if it alters the jobs of those we have come to rely upon.
The divergence between what the professional wants from his career and the needs that the rest of us want them to fulfil is evident in that most undramatic of places, the municipal library. Once, the silent stacks were policed by worthy women in pearls, whose greatest excitement was spotting errors in the cataloguing system. Not any more. This month, the Library and Information Commission will report back to the Culture Secretary on how best to spend pounds 50m allocated for a national network of digitalised information. The need for such a network was outlined in the working party's earlier study which went by the impeccably Blairite title, New Library: The People's Network.
Today's librarians shiver with excitement at the thought of row upon row of screens with young people surfing the Net. Books, by contrast, get short shrift. We might want long, convenient opening hours and a plentiful supply of fiction from a public library, but most of them are restricting their hours and spending little on books.
In the past 10 years, the book stock of Britain's 4,000 municipal libraries has shrunk by 10 million volumes. Sheffield council, for example, bought no books last year; Somerset council is only buying fiction again after being warned that it was contravening the law.
How much more radical it would be for the Culture Secretary and the Prime Minister, rather than stressing the need to create supernurses and information technicians, to stress human skills. Those of us who have had to endure the attentions of nurses and librarians would welcome it. Hike up their pay, not because they have to be masters of technological wizardry but because in future we should demand far more of them.
For too long we have believed in the myth of the lady with the lamp and the caring professions. The truth is that many of them were never caring enough. Ask anyone who has been in a hospital in recent years and they will tell you of nurses who are contemptuous of patients, treat them as a nuisance, and are so busy that the sick and distressed are too anxious to ask for help.
It is no coincidence that these are worlds of work traditionally dominated by women. Nurses and librarians have been badly paid and badly treated for too long, and we should reject any hint of continuing exploitation. That means paying a proper rate for the job and maintaining high standards. But before we rush toward a new world of cold professionalism, has the moment not come to urge the career nurses and the librarians to junk the tag "women's work" but at the same time to feminise their jobs? It is time these careers were imbued with newly valued professional motives: motives such as courtesy and kindness and time. It would transform not only their lives but ours too.Reuse content