Last Thursday, for the first time since lockdown began, doorsteps across the nation were oddly quiet. The clapping for carers, introduced by a Dutch Londoner, which had been observed for the first ten long weeks of lockdown, had vanished as quickly as it appeared.
The clap for carers emerged only three days after lockdown measures were initially announced, and by its second week was being observed nationwide. It’s not difficult to see why: with the pandemic raging and NHS workers battling the virus regardless of how safe it was for them to do so, tributes and support were bound to roll in. Political leaders were keen for it to catch on – Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock in particular quickly publicised their clapping even as both were beginning to suffer from Covid-19. With the popularity of the NHS, they had little to lose from showing their respect.
The appeal of this kind of public ritual is that when it starts, it seems as close to apolitical as possible. The NHS is possibly the only of the UK’s political institutions that enjoys this position in the national consciousness, and is rightly held up as one of the things we can all actually be proud of, regardless of political orientation.
However, the events of the next few weeks would reveal this to be a very damaging idea. As the death toll skyrocketed, it became all too clear that the UK was in the unfortunate position of being Europe’s worst-hit country. Accounts of nurses going into work without the proper protective equipment began to hit the headlines. The testing system failed to get off the ground as weeks turned into months. The secret hell that was the care home system became horrifyingly apparent. How, with a system so great, so widely respected, had we become the second worst-hit country in the world?
We failed to tackle this pandemic properly – when you think back to how we were all still out and about in those weeks before lockdown, you can’t help but shudder – but our failure doesn’t just stem from those weeks. For ten long years the systems that could have been in place to help us prepare for or mitigate the damage of a deadly pandemic have been gutted, with deadly cuts to the NHS, local councils, and the care home system. In the last three years, management of the nation’s PPE stockpile has been overseen by three different private companies. In late March, the army was tasked with distribution due to the chaos within the company that was looking at an emerging pandemic for the last three months and still failed to set up a way to distribute PPE when the time came. At the start of the crisis, the UK had one of the lowest number of spare beds per capita in the ‘developed’ world, a problem that extends back even further than ten years. Every winter for the past five years has pushed the NHS near to its breaking point, and we’ve done nothing more than pay lip service to increasing its funding.
It is now apparent that seeing the NHS as an apolitical entity has helped create these conditions. If politicians of all stripes, regardless of their position on healthcare, can be seen as ‘the party of the NHS’, as both Labour and the Tories repeatedly claim, then there is no political pressure to change how it works or how it is funded. The way in which Boris Johnson won the 2019 election, by taking many of Labour’s seemingly solid seats in the North, was partially by appearing to be more pro-NHS than his predecessor. Despite promising a mild increase in funding, even after election Johnson’s government still held many of the key workers they’d been so desperate to claim support for in contempt. This February, Priti Patel announced that many of the key workers that the healthcare system relies on, the immigrant nurses and carers, would be denied visas over the coming years (notice how quiet they’ve been about this now that everyone’s realised we rely on immigration to keep us alive).
This gives the game away – politicians can’t promise to increase the funding for healthcare and then take away the people it can’t work without. The attitude that we can coast along as we are has come back to bite us in the most devastating way possible. The clapping for carers has been distracting us from the reality of the situation of those carers, and it’s no coincidence that it has died out as this reality has become impossible to deny.
I’m glad it’s gone; not just because we can’t paper over the cracks in our system anymore, but because it was starting to turn us against each other. The decision of the government to tie themselves to the clapping turned it from a sporadic, spontaneous show of support to a fixture of public life. In an unsurprising turn of events, it was no longer about who was clapping, but who wasn’t. Pots and pans, music, even fireworks started to feature in a game of one-upmanship between houses, and those not participating were treated with suspicion – the ugliest moment I can recall being an NHS nurse driving home from a busy shift on a Thursday night experiencing a torrent of abuse from people allegedly supporting her.
This seems to be the unfortunate fate of public rituals in this country, as those who choose not to wear a poppy in November can attest. According to Annemarie Plas, the founder, it “had its moment”. If we can learn something from the clap, it’s that saying we support our NHS is not enough – our actions need to speak much louder than our words.
Image: Number 10 via Flickr