You clap for me now

Saksha reflects on the government response to the coronavirus pandemic

By Saksha Menezes |

In an article for the Guardian, leftist columnist Owen Jones has argued that Conservative government officials clapping for NHS health workers is insulting. After a decade of austerity, which has led to chronic underfunding of the health service, a weekly clap to show a shared appreciation for vital workers is an empty gesture, an insult.

But perhaps you have heard Conservative government officials saying that he is wrong. They argue that the government is investing an extra £34 billion in the NHS, ‘the biggest increase in modern memory!’ Though when adjusted for inflation, the £34 billion figure actually becomes £20.5 billion between 2018/19 and 2023/24. Although the NHS budget has grown, the average rise in spending has been just over 4%. The biggest rises were seen under the Labour governments between 1997 and 2010 when the average annual rise was about 6%. 

| Anh Nguyễn Duy/Pixabay

Even regarding the current personal protective equipment scandal, some would respond saying that the government only took over the acquisition of PPE when the crisis hit the UK. Before that, it was the Trust’s responsibility as they each had procurement teams and these teams failed to stockpile supplies in the 3 months before the virus got here. 

However, this fails to recognise the fact that Boris Johnson actually sent away PPE to China in February, ‘missed 5 Cobra meetings on the coronavirus’ during the same period and the UK also failed to join the EU scheme bulk-buying masks, gowns, gloves and goggles. The European commission announced on 31 January that it could help member states with organisation of such joint procurement schemes. The UK was given ‘ample opportunity’ to join throughout February and March. The government response to these accusations have been unclear. Some UK officials and ministers say the government failed to take part in the scheme ‘owing to an initial communication problem and that the UK did not receive an invitation on time’. On the other hand, a spokesman for the commission stated that the ministers had taken a ‘political decision’ to opt out. 

These weekly claps, if not backed up with material support, are void of meaning.

Particularly within Cornwall, supplies of personal protective equipment is a major issue. The Cornwall Council has reported that the council’s health and care providers have received just 40% of the personal protective equipment that they have asked for. 

Therefore, it could certainly be argued that these weekly claps, if not backed up with material support, are void of meaning. It becomes even more sinister when considering reporting from the Guardian that NHS workers have been told by their Trusts to not use social media in ways that may make the Trust look bad and some workers at Norfolk and Suffolk mental health Trust have been specifically told not to tweet about ‘political issues’ such as ‘PPE, testing and exit strategies’. 

As of now, more than 80 frontline NHS workers are confirmed to have died during the coronavirus pandemic. The threat is clear and imminent, so why are we saying that it is ‘too political’ to question if NHS administrators and government officials are doing their best to keep them safe? 

What is even worse is that those who question these claps or question Boris Johnson or other government officials are thought to be taking ‘cheap swipes’ or are engaging in ‘nasty politics’. At the time of writing, over 800 people have died in a single day in the UK and the national death toll has exceeded 20,000, the Department of Health has announced. If we want to stop the death toll rising, we need to see some immediate changes in government policy. The government needs to give adequate PPE to frontline NHS workers, put forward a strong exit plan to encourage the British people to stay at home and save lives and call more decisive action. 

Today, we are not all in this together and some parts of society are bearing more of the brunt of the pandemic than others. We all need to do our part to ensure the government provides adequate protection for the most vulnerable in our society. Far from being a great ‘leveller’ or ‘equaliser’. COVID-19 has exposed critical and gaping inequalities in our society. The young, low-income workers and those in precarious and unstable jobs will suffer the most. 

| Hans Braxmeier/Pixabay

While some are able to work from home and self-isolate in large living spaces with adequate private outdoor space, those on the frontline are constantly exposed to the virus and are much more vulnerable.

Clapping for NHS workers is a lovely gesture. All of us have NHS workers living on our streets and many have expressed that it feels like the whole community is behind them and is a great motivator. However, as students, it is easy to feel helpless during this time, but it is important to know that we can all help and have a part to play. For example, this Thursday, we should shout ‘give them PPE’ whilst we clap. Perhaps we should write to our local MP’s to pressure the government into increasing spending on the NHS. Or even volunteer at our local hospitals. Remember that when this is all over, we all are responsible for making sure we are not this vulnerable next time.