Forgive me if I sound ungrateful, but as an NHS doctor I feel uncomfortable about healthcare staff like myself becoming overnight “heroes” in the context of the coronavirus outbreak.
Frankly, I’d prefer not to be a hero. Like a lot of people in the NHS, I’d just like to turn up and do my job without encountering needless risks thanks to a lack of adequate personal protective equipment and a virtual absence of coronavirus testing. Facing the sort of danger that could be prevented doesn’t make me a hero, it just makes me a potential victim. And another unit to subtract from the already depleted stock of NHS staff.
Also, I’d prefer it if my colleagues did not have to be heroes too. There are lots of reasons why healthcare staff may be finding the current situation difficult or stressful: many are having to adapt to new work patterns or in some cases whole new jobs, while also having to make difficult decisions about patient care. I would like to think that staff who feel challenged are able ask for help and support, without being inhibited by notions of having to behave like a hero, whatever that means.
Because actually, a good number of my NHS coworkers are feeling less like heroes and more like imposters. They are not necessarily the staff who are operating the ITU ventilators for coronavirus patients, or treating them in A&E. But those ITU and A&E teams can only do their work thanks to the multitude of relatively ordinary-looking team members backing them up: not only the doctors and nurses in other specialities, but also the admin staff, psychologists, IT staff and cleaners, physios, occupational therapists, radiographers, midwives, managers and countless others.
These workers have been chronically undervalued. For successive years under the conservative government, NHS staff had their salaries capped at an annual 1% pay rise — much less than the rate of inflation, and barely amounting to an extra fiver per week for most staff. Hardly the reward for heroes. And not enough to prevent a massive haemorrhaging of healthcare staff and a crisis of recruitment.
From 'frontline staff' to 'redeployments', whose purposes are being served by the use of wartime rhetoric for our caring roles?
Staff remaining feel overwhelmed and unappreciated, and are subject to routine aggression and intimidation. So when government ministers make announcements about coronavirus from behind a podium that is labelled “Protect the NHS”, and when Boris Johnson appears on the doorstep of No 10 to “clap the carers” it feels like authorities are making a mockery of us.
Boris Johnson has succumbed to Covid-19 and is in hospital and we all wish him well. But the notion of NHS heroes aligns alarmingly well with Johnson’s Churchillian aspirations. In our hour of crisis we have readily taken up the metaphors of conflict: “frontline” staff, “redeployments”, and brave NHS “heroes” who are “battling” the virus. But whose purposes are being served by the use of wartime rhetoric for our caring roles?
It’s fantastic to see people supporting NHS staff. I’m grateful to my local kebab shop for laying on free doners for us and I’m touched by the anonymous person who left gift boxes for staff at my local hospital. I hear the honest intent among members of the public in calling us heroes and in giving us a round of applause on a Thursday night. Oh, and thanks for the face masks James McAvoy and the money Joe Wicks. But we should be careful that all of this bestowal of kindness and appreciation does not permit the perception that the NHS is some sort of charitable endeavour run by outlying do-gooders. It isn’t.
Our National Health Service is staffed by some wonderful and impressively dedicated people. But anyone attending a health facility during the coronavirus outbreak will not find staff with special powers. They will simply find humans who are overworked, exhausted, and anxious, but still trying hard to do their job.
Do enjoy clapping with your neighbours, and don’t forget to say thanks to the next health worker who helps you out. But more importantly, let’s never again allow the government to get away with rubbishing the NHS, its staff and jeopardising the health of the nation.
Andrew Moscrop is a GP at a health centre for people who are homeless in Oxford
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.