I am the press officer for a major NHS campaigning organisation. It is my job - and my privilege - to listen to the voices of NHS staff and relay their messages to the public. It is my job to give those workers a voice, in order to alert people to the daily realities inside the NHS. The NHS is a publicly-funded service; the taxpayer has a right to know what life on the frontline is really like.
NHS staff have always been naturally guarded in their response. They do not sensationalise. Being a clinician carries with it a great responsibility in terms of adhering to confidentiality, and confidences are rightly kept in a professional context.
However, there are numerous examples of NHS staff being burned for justly speaking out about what are public safety concerns. Understandably staff are therefore very wary (and, yes, frightened) of saying something that may lay them open to disciplinary action.
Amid the struggle against the coronavirus pandemic, NHS England, the government body that oversees the English NHS, is now controlling media communications and even people’s personal social media accounts are being monitored. Staff have been instructed not to speak out about their concerns at a time of huge national public interest. Not only are senior management dictating who staff should speak to and about what, but in doing so they are also denying them a form of expression. NHS Trusts are asking NHS staff to regulate their emotional response during the most stressful period they have ever encountered.
Since coronavirus first began to impact on the NHS, I've heard several times a day of people's legitimate concerns and fears over the lack of protective equipment and testing - and with good reason. The government has not been listening to healthcare staff through the normal communication channels and they are proving dangerously slow to react to what NHS staff are telling them. The only sure way to put pressure on the government and make them listen is publicly, by speaking openly to government and the people through the media. Gagging NHS staff is nothing more than an attempt at a cover up for the dire way this government has handled the pandemic from the top.
The lack of personal protective equipment and virus testing for frontline staff is a scandal. Staff are being sent into battle with no armour; their lives are being put at risk because the government has failed to provide them with suitable clothing to protect them from this potentially deadly illness. Doctors and nurses are now even crowdfunding for face masks and gloves in one of the richest countries in the world. Staff are still not being routinely tested for the virus so are unwittingly passing on Covid-19 to their patients, families and loved ones.
These issues are set against a backdrop of an NHS that has been critically underfunded and understaffed for a decade, so it is unsurprising and perfectly natural that even those who were previously silent have now felt it necessary to speak up.
All this hero worship of late makes most NHS workers quite uncomfortable. Eyes roll and the standard response is: “I'm not a hero, I'm just doing my job.” Nevertheless, that’s how they are viewed by the public at the moment, and with good reason. Yet NHS staff have been overlooked and taken for granted for far too long. The small breaks they have lately been offered have not come without a fight. Petitions for free staff parking have been created by concerned members of the public, and Johnson and co have had to concede. The mass public admiration is no more than they all deserve. It's just a shame it's taken a worldwide pandemic to force the government to see it.
I hope my colleagues continue to be the incredibly brave and selfless individuals that they are in speaking out and holding this disastrous government to account, and I hope people outside of this bubble understand the hard truth of the situation.
Doctors and nurses are the canaries in this unexplored mine. When they make a noise, it's our responsibility to listen.
Samantha Wathen is a press officer for Keep Our NHS Public
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