Last night, I took a break from staring into my phone and Googling "how to cut your own hair" to stand outside and join hundreds of neighbours banging saucepans from their balconies. We cheered with people across the UK and Ireland who opened their doors and windows to clap for workers at the coalface of coronavirus – the doctors, nurses, and other NHS staff.
I hadn’t expected to take part because the idea of clapping like a seal into the night air had previously struck me as pointless and self-serving. It was certainly the impression I got from videos of celebrities taking part, including the somewhat dystopian footage of Priyanka Chopra applauding an empty lawn from her mansion.
But last night’s tribute to the NHS was surprisingly cathartic and a chance to wave at the cooped up older neighbours that I used to see on their morning dog walk. For a few minutes, it really did feel like we were all in this together, albeit by doing something guaranteed to wake up NHS staff trying to get some kip before a night shift started.
The magic of that moment faded when I looked back at my phone and saw Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak clapping outside No 10. It’s a galling image for anyone who remembers Tory MPs cheering after they blocked Labour’s bid to increase salaries for nurses and firefighters in 2017. The next video I swiped to was Prince George and his siblings clapping away, presumably for Bupa, given how much money the royal family spends to use private hospitals that boast four nurses to every patient. So much for "we’re all in it together."
This doesn’t mean we should stop clapping for carers, but it’s worth asking how every voice saying "thank you" can also demand a future where nurses aren’t visiting food banks.
For now, my hope for real change isn’t coming from celebrities or the government, but the same neighbours who joined me to shout and cheer in Tower Hamlets last night – a borough where more than 50 per cent of children are growing up in poverty. Some have joined the same Mutual Aid group that I’m a member of and they dedicate hours of their time to collecting food and prescriptions for neighbours while offering advice on rogue landlords and employers who aren’t playing their part in this crisis.
Some of these community activists are directing people to campaigns like We Own It and Keep Our NHS Public, which rail against privatisation of the NHS, schools, Royal Mail and other services. In response to the pandemic, Keep Our NHS Public has six key demands for the government that includes personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing for all NHS and social care staff. They’re also calling for an increase in statutory sick pay as they demand that all private health resources are brought into public service to help join the fight against the virus.
Goodwill towards the NHS doesn’t always translate into political solidarity and I’ve already seen the gentlest calls to action get shot down under the #clapforcarers hashtag. Last night, one member of the Tower Hamlets Covid-19 Facebook group wrote that, “The whole of the UK came together tonight to thank our amazing NHS and front line key workers. It's a real shame the government has not managed to give front line workers essential personnel protection equipment.”
“Tonight has been about togetherness,” came one reply. “Please save the political crap for another time.”
It’s an expected response when the UK has a habit of turning moments of solidarity into empty gestures. Each year, Remembrance Sunday sparks manufactured outrage from the poppy patrol who decide which newsreaders (and even which muppets) should or shouldn’t be pinning paper flowers to their chests instead of a moment of silence to remember life wasted in war.
But if we truly want to thank NHS staff, gratitude has to go hand-in-hand with direct calls to action. We’d all do well to heed the advice of Aneurin Bevan, who led the establishment of the NHS, when he wrote in 1952 that, “warm gushes of self-indulgent emotion are an unreliable source of driving power in the field of health organization.”
Or if you want to emulate someone alive today, we can look to my other hero: Britney Spears, who called for the redistribution of wealth and a general strike. Now that’s something I’d give a standing ovation to.
*A previous version of this article said We Own It came up with "six demands from NHS staff to help us tackle coronavirus", this has now been corrected to Keep Our NHS Public, which is responsible for launching the petition
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