The 'NHS heroes' narrative is an excuse for the atrocious conditions of our health workers
Just like many other housebound citizens across the country (and indeed the world), the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown has resulted in me watching a lot more television. Some of my current go-to shows are The Chase, The Great British Sewing Bee, decade-old re-runs of the Weakest Link on Challenge (yes, I am that sad), and my new guilty lunchtime pleasure, Loose Women. But more importantly, I’ve also started watching broadcast news a lot more than I did prior to the virus crisis, and I’m sure this is the case for millions of us, who are constantly anxious for guidance and answers. Amongst the bombardment of information and stories pertaining to coronavirus the world over, the consumer has also been privy to an unprecedented veneration of our National Health Service, through coverage of charity initiatives, the most notable being Captain (now Colonel) Tom Moore’s 100-lap stroll of his garden, whose fundraising bucket has now exploded into the tens of millions. Or indeed, the ‘Clap for the NHS’, a weekly ritual now performed up and down the nation (myself included), which now even has its own dedicated news slot every Thursdays at 8pm.
While such initiatives have captured the public imagination and renewed the public spirit at an unpredictable and worrying time, I do fear that those who are making martyrs of our NHS staff actually have more nefarious motivations, and that such strategic messaging is designed to excuse for the government’s lethargic and negligent approach to preparing for the outbreak, which manifested itself most starkly in the scandalous lack of sufficient and good-quality personal protective equipment (PPE) for NHS staff. In fairness, this is a problem that the broadcast media (along with sections of the print press) have tried to expose and for which they have attempted to hold the government’s feet to the fire. The government have felt the heat to such a point where they have now resorted to moving the numerical goalposts on PPE provision and testing targets to make it seem as though they’re performing better than they really are. But the media have almost entirely fallen into the trap of buying into the government’s game of treating our ill-equipped nurses and doctors as heroes, which taps into our sub-conscious by making us think that they are rightfully sacrificing themselves. Of course, our nurses and doctors do face a much higher risk as they help and treat coronavirus patients, but it should go without saying that no one enters the health profession expecting to die for their work as a result of neglect from central government.
However, the war-like analogies used by the government and media commentators have served to normalise such a tragedy within our healthcare system. Even more worryingly, this strategic reframing of the crisis seems to be working dividends: Boris Johnson remains highly favourable in the eyes of the voters, and recent polls suggest that the Tories’ lead over Labour is so commanding that if an election were held tomorrow, they would win by a landslide so crushing that would make Thatcher and Blair look like amateurs. The government’s popularity is perhaps unsurprising since the public tend to rally around their leaders during a national emergency such as this, but given that only two months ago the Prime Minister was skipping vital COBRA meetings and casually flouting the reckless idea of ‘herd immunity’ on television, I don’t think he deserves such plaudits. The media’s faithful adherence to the government’s messaging points to a fundamental lack of accountability towards those whose actions (or indeed inaction) have now given our country the worst death toll in Europe. This is especially problematic since it is the Conservatives who have spent the last decade in government wilfully decimating the health service.
There is something Cummings-esque in this manipulative and disingenuous style of media communication, if his past record is anything to go by. He would seem the best-suited character to forge a narrative which distracts from the government’s abysmal preparations for the pandemic, and indeed 10 years of brutal Tory cuts. Indeed, the government cannot be allowed to equate an ephemeral round of applause on the doorstep of Number 10 to meaningful assistance to the health service. This may seem like overly cynical and politicised criticism, but if accountability for failures in the health sector aren’t relevant during a pandemic, when will they ever be?
How do Labour fit into this? Although it is early days, Sir Keir Starmer has been widely praised for his ‘forensic’ challenging of the government’s missteps on testing and PPE, while maintaining a respectful and apolitical tone. Going forward, Labour don’t necessarily need to challenge the ‘heroes’ aspect directly. Imagine the backlash if Labour suggested NHS workers weren’t ‘heroes’ – one of the clever tenets of this strategy in that it is inconvenient to criticise openly. Nonetheless, our NHS workers deserve honest answers, appropriate working conditions, and sufficient funding; tokenistic gestures and warm words will achieve next to nothing in the long run.