It’s undeniable that NHS workers have been the backbone of the UK’s fight against this pandemic. The tireless work of those on the frontline, who have put their own health at risk to keep others safe and healthy, is inspiring.
But despite that, and my gratitude, I won’t be clapping for our carers on Thursdays in the rebranded “Clap For Heroes”.
In fact, I won’t be calling them heroes either. Instead, it’s vital we remember that our frontline workers, outside of the hospital, the school gates, the supermarket, are real people struggling just as much as the rest of us.
Frontline workers have worked under enormous amounts of pressure and stress this year, with a lack of PPE and crushingly long hours wearing them down. Despite that, calls for pay rises for NHS staff have been largely ignored.
In the last decade, the NHS has been ravaged by austerity measures and constant cuts to the vital resources that allow them to do their jobs properly. This government’s historic squeezing of NHS funds is precisely what has spread our healthcare system so thinly during this pandemic.
Yet, every politician is quick to praise the NHS. Indeed, Prime Minister Boris Johnson rarely does a briefing without thanking our NHS workers. In August, doctors and dentists were given a 2.8% pay rise, but this doesn’t come close to making up for the cuts experienced over the last decade.
Instead, yet again, the NHS receives empty promises and empty gestures. The latest of these being the “Clap for Heroes”. Admittedly, the clap was started with good intentions – and by an independent citizen. But its adoption by politicians has been enthusiastic and convenient.
It’s become increasingly plain that what might have started as a sign of respect for those on the frontline of the Covid fight, is now nothing more than futile hypocrisy. By clapping and cheering on Thursdays, we are complicit. Instead, we should be sending a clear message – performative clapping isn’t good enough.
What NHS workers really need are pay rises to better compensate them for their time, not a national clap they are probably too busy working or burnt out to hear. What NHS workers have been calling for is tangible: better PPE, safe staffing levels and adequate medical resources to be able to protect both themselves and their patients. Perhaps the government can start there.
Calling NHS staff “heroes”, and indeed all our frontline workers, reinforces the idea they can put up with anything. When I think of a hero, I think of someone with superhuman strength and courage, larger than life, and with qualities that set them apart from the rest.
But those on our frontline – from NHS staff, to teachers, to shopworkers – are human, who rely on support from our government that goes far beyond a weekly clap. They don’t have some hidden ability that makes them more able to handle the increasingly untenable pressures of this pandemic.
For me, the weekly clap has became more about virtue signalling than about supporting the NHS. Politicians made a point of filming themselves standing out on the street with their families, banging pots and pans together, before heading into work the next day and continuing to refuse pay rises to the workers they claim to respect.
Hundreds of NHS workers themselves have lost their lives due to Coronavirus, in part as a result of a lack of PPE. Ignoring these structural issues that the NHS is up against will not help them in the long run.
Ultimately, the weekly clap, although well-intentioned, is a distraction from the larger issues. Instead of taking part in “Clap for Heroes” every Thursday, we should be acting as allies to those on the frontline by lobbying the government to give them what they are asking for.
So hold off on clapping. Enacting real change is the only way we will ever really pay back our NHS workers for their sacrifices and dedication over the last year.
Rachael Davies is a freelance writer.