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We must not fall into a clap trap over the NHS

Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Prime Minister Boris Johnson applauding outside 10 Downing Street in a gesture of thanks to the hardworking NHS staff. Picture: Aaron Chown/PA - Credit: PA

The weekly ‘clap for our carers’ ritual provides a much-needed moment of gratitude and community. But LIZ GERARD wonders where it might lead.

Around 2,800 overseas NHS workers face going home in 12 months if they are not offered the right to remain; Peter Byrne – Credit: PA

It’s 8 o’clock on Thursday. Time to stand on the doorstep and bang a saucepan. It’s part of the lockdown rules, now.

We all want to show our appreciation for care workers who put themselves in danger to save our loved ones. But how swiftly has a round of applause metamorphosed into a voracious monster requiring ever greater and grander declarations of admiration.

As with everything related to the coronavirus, we came to this late. Sold as a yoga teacher’s flash of inspiration that took off, it was really an idea pinched from continental cities that had been paying nightly homage in the same way for weeks. Still, that first week created a feelgood moment, especially with the little Cambridges, the Beckhams and James Bond joining in. No one was too grand to show humility in the face of ‘true’ heroes (or too modest not to video themselves doing so).

There, too, at the beginning, were a sickly Boris and Rishi, socially distanced in Downing Street, while Jezza rallied his disciples in Islington. Cynical political photo-opportunity or PR necessity? If it were the former that first Thursday, it has certainly since become the latter. Fiona Bruce would now get more flak if she started Thursday night’s Question Time without a token clap than if she appeared poppyless to read the November news.

On two successive Thursdays, the Sun devoted its entire front page to instructing readers to ‘applaud NHS heroes’ – at a time when those very heroes were begging for gowns and visors to shield them from the virus and for tests to determine whether they had already been infected. Which did the Sun think mattered most to doctors and nurses: PPE, Covid tests or clapping?

We reached peak nonsense last week, when scores of people gathered on Westminster Bridge to cheer doctors and nurses – and simultaneously risk adding to their workload – while police who are supposed to enforce social distancing mingled with the throng and joined in.

Thus, egged on by newspapers keen both to deflect attention from government failings and to find positives in a crisis, we have managed to turn an outpouring of love for ultra-tired, ultra-scared NHS staff into a weekly street party; a massive virtue-signalling exercise that makes people desperate to ‘do something’ and feel better about themselves.

If we wanted simply to show gratitude, there are more tangible ways. Like the people in Wigan who painted a personalised parking space on the street outside a nurse’s house. Or by offering a practical service, by sewing scrubs, by making sure health worker neighbours get fresh produce, or just by leaving flowers, wine or chocolates on the doorstep.

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Some do all of those things and more; others feel that clapping is all they can offer. To some of us, the ritual is over-sentimental, a bit of showing off that is perhaps not quite British. But such jaded cynicism is to miss an important side benefit: the huge collateral bonus of a moment of community in a time of isolation; a weekly coming together, akin to the Sunday church service of a century ago. The Thursday clap-in remains a golden opportunity for people who have been cooped up to get out into the open, see human beings other than their families, and release some endorphins. The ‘thank you’ posters recognise that society’s debt is not just to carers, but also to supermarket workers, binmen, delivery drivers and posties. This isn’t simply for ‘the angels’; it’s for all of us. We really are all in this mess together.

But for how long? At what point along the squashed sombrero curve does the clapping stop? When deaths are down to double figures? When lockdown is over and we’re back to normal? That could mean a year of Thursday pan-bashing that will rapidly descend into something as meaningless as a minute’s applause and black armbands for a recently-deceased football director that neither players nor fans have heard of.

For now, though, the race is on to find new and better ways to honour our Covid champions, starting with a knighthood for Captain Tom, the fundraising zimmer-frame marathon man. The Mirror was the first to suggest giving health workers medals. That seemed a fair idea but, with a thousand new cases a day and urgent concerns about testing, PPE, and lockdown policing, it jarred to see the paper squander a precious daily briefing question trying to lure Dominic Raab into endorsing the initiative. It didn’t quite work, but the next day’s front page still shouted ‘Give them all a medal’.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and the Sun was upping the ante, calling for carers to be awarded the George Cross. Put the two ideas together and it’s easy to envisage a ‘campaign medal’ for nurses and the George Cross for consultants.

Now we have moved on to calls for a minute’s silence for NHS staff who died caring for Covid patients. We absolutely need to pay our respects, but isn’t it a bit early? What about the others who will die before this pandemic is over? Is it to become another weekly/annual memorial? And talking of memorials, the Express is this week asking for a ‘national monument’ to be built to ‘honour their sacrifice’.

For the moment, health workers don’t need badges, gongs or monuments. They need to be equipped to do their job safely. And they need the press to make sure they are – or find out the reason why not – rather than conduct an homage auction. Or order readers to clap. People can make that call for themselves.

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