On returning from the hospital after receiving treatment for Covid-19 in early 2020, Boris Johnson cut a changed figure. Perhaps understandably, confronting his mortality appeared to have left a psychological mark on the Prime Minister.
This mark took the form of a seemingly renewed gratitude for the NHS and its workforce. In a lengthy statement, Johnson lauded the care he had received, particularly citing the efforts of two nurses, without whom he might not be here today.
Considering this so-called ‘brush with death’ then, one might find the Prime Minister’s recent decision to limit a pay rise for NHS staff to just 1% somewhat surprising. Indeed, the offer certainly seems out of keeping with a man who, not more than 12 months ago, referred to the NHS as ‘the beating heart of this country.’
Of course, there is an obvious economic argument to be made in favour of restricting pay for NHS staff. COVID-19 has left public finances in a dire state, with the deficit projected to reach £355bn this year. On these grounds, Rishi Sunak rationalised the pay restriction, insisting that 1% was simply ‘the most’ the government could afford.
Such an argument might appear more sincere were it not for the Chancellor’s lavish spending proclivities elsewhere. The 1% increase, which amounts to just £3.50 extra per week for nurses, is positively insignificant compared to the estimated cost of HS2, which stands at a staggering £106bn.
The discussion around NHS pay should ultimately transcend exclusively economic considerations. However, as the vaccination effort gathers pace and our piecemeal return to normality continues, it is easy to lose sight of the position we were once in.
A contagious virus arrived on our shores only one year ago, the effects of which were still largely unknown. Amidst the uncertainty, NHS staff returned to work without fanfare, their commitment unwavering. It is through this prism that we should view the efforts of healthcare workers. More importantly, how we choose to reward them for such efforts speaks volumes about us as a society, who we are and what we value.
In which case, the government’s 1% offer is a sad indictment of how much the UK values its NHS workforce. Some might baulk at this suggestion. The weekly NHS clap, or ‘clap for heroes’ as it was more popularly dubbed, brought people out in their droves, conveying the impression of a country that is immensely proud of its health service.
And yet, though it would be wrong to question the underlying sincerity of the gesture, this public display of affection does, in effect, feed an unhelpful narrative that has impeded NHS staff from making any meaningful inroads into the subject of pay in recent years. Despite his spell in intensive care, this narrative’s essence was contained within Johnson’s tribute to the NHS. The organisation is ‘unconquerable’, Johnson said. ‘It is powered by love.’
In fact, the Prime Minister is wrong. The NHS isn’t ‘powered by love’, but rather a highly dedicated, technically skilled workforce that relies on public funding. Johnson’s hyperbole invites the public to overlook a litany of issues plaguing healthcare staff, safe in the knowledge that love of one’s profession is adequate remuneration.
In reality, recent statistics lay bare the claim that nurses ‘love’ their job. An analysis undertaken by the Health Foundation thinktank revealed that the number of personnel leaving the NHS has tripled in the last seven years. Unsurprisingly, these years coincide with a period of austerity in which the pay of nurses has been squeezed. Coupled with the added strain of Brexit, which will inevitably impact the UK’s ability to recruit healthcare staff from overseas, Johnson’s rhetoric is exacerbating an already existential crisis.
During World War 2, Winston Churchill said of the Royal Air Force, ‘never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’ In 2021, the foe is not German, but Covid-19. Today’s ‘heroes’ are not pilots but those healthcare workers who put their own lives at risk to care for others. For want of a better analogy, history too will recognise their monumental sacrifice. What’s more, as time lends perspective, we will come to realise that such a sacrifice merited more than a weekly clap.