Don’t clap for our carers tonight – it means nothing when the government is failing them so badly

We’re standing on our doorsteps and balconies to cheer a system that is broken, encouraging health workers to pay for it with their lives

Sophia Akram
Thursday 21 May 2020 10:19
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Carrie Symonds joins Boris Johnson for Clap for Carers

On Thursday evenings at 8pm, there’s only one place I’ve really needed to be in lockdown: on my balcony, applauding, hooting, and maybe giving my skillet a good bang for added effect. I’ve never thought of #clapforcarers as an empty gesture; I’m genuinely grateful for those frontline workers, while I work from home, and, being safe and well, I count my blessings every day.

But weekly nationwide act of thankfulness has been gaining criticism. What’s the point of clapping, say the cynics, when health workers are underpaid? When we have collectively voted for a government that’s been defunding and stripping back the NHS, weakening its ability to respond to a crisis.

My reply to those concerns has always been that I chose to vote for a party pledging more cash to the health service, and have ardently supported the NHS for years. I took to the streets for student nurses losing their bursaries and protested against cuts and creeping privatisation. Like so many of us, the NHS means a lot to me personally. Without it, I would have witnessed loved ones pass too soon. Why wouldn’t I clap for its staff now, when they’re facing the biggest challenge in their working lives?

Yes, as the pandemic has progressed and the UK’s coronavirus death rate soars to more than 35,000, a realisation is dawning. We’re standing on our doorsteps and balconies, and leaning out of our windows, to cheer a system that is broken – and encouraging health workers to pay for it with their lives.

More than 300 health and care workers have died from Covid-19, Boris Johnson confirmed on Wednesday. His government have rightly faced harsh criticism over the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) that Physicians for Human Rights called a global crisis. Questions need to be over how far this has contributed to health workers in the UK being exposed to high viral loads that put them at grave risk.

We might have been able to predict this particular pandemic, but our NHS should have been properly prepared. Exercise Cygnus, a government simulation project on a flu-type pandemic several years ago, was designed to do precisely that. Its 2017 report on the findings threw up the need for more PPE distribution points – just one of its recommendations that apparently went unheeded.

Shockingly, now the virus is with us, doctors have been buying their own protective gear and helping to source it for thousands of key workers, all after working long and emotionally-draining shifts in our hospitals

In the light of these revelations, mindlessly clapping every Thursday evening seems increasingly meaningless. More importantly, nurses and doctors are now telling us to stop.

“We are not heroes. This is not a sacrifice. It is not valiant,” said one NHS worker on social media. “We’re not f***ing soldiers. We are inadequately protected workers that are dying, just trying to do our job. For that to happen in any measure, in any job, in any part of this country is criminal and should be treated as such.”

Our heroes earn less than gallant wages; some have had to use food banks, even in non-pandemic times. All they’re given in gratitude is the privilege of queue jumping at the supermarket for food that is now even more expensive to buy. There have been no promises of pay rises or no scrapping of unfair surcharges that foreign workers must pay to access the very health system they seem to prop up.

Millions have been raised in charity donations for the NHS. Still, not a single penny can be spared by the government to serve workers better conditions because, in practical terms, our rounds of applause won’t get them very much.

The Covid-19 pandemic is laying bare systemic failures outside the health sector too – in the lack of support for homelessness people, in the precarity of our work, and the disproportionate impact the health crisis is having on poorer communities and people from black and other ethnic minority backgrounds.

It’s clear to me now that there’s far more we can do to show our appreciation than clap: lobby our MPs, throw up placards in our windows, thunderously demand better for the people we depend on so much. Because putting our hands together this Thursday will feel more like a blow to our carers and NHS workers than a cheer. It will feel like adulation for a shocking government response.

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