Photo: Álvaro Martínez García
“I do not like the clapping, it is a massive distraction and makes the public feel that they have supported us. I fear few will remember this at the ballot box.
“We have seen cuts to services, to our working conditions, to pay and brutal changes to pensions. This needs to be sorted and a clap will not do it.”
Physiotherapist Debbie Austin is one of several readers who wrote to the Cable after we published a ‘Message from a tired healthcare worker’. This Thursday will be the 11th week of the Clap for the NHS, which has inspired mixed responses from Bristolians. Some were concerned about neighbours breaking social distancing guidelines and risking transmitting coronavirus and some think it has become a political football.
“There is a shocking lack of scrutiny, and to see Tory MPs clapping makes my blood boil,” says Debbie. “They willingly put us in a vulnerable place and then act as if it has all been out of their control. Public services need a reversal of austerity not applause.”
Others pointed out the hypocrisy of people in mainly Tory constituencies clapping, when the Conservatives have cut the NHS steadily over the last decade.
“I can’t help thinking the same neighbours I hear clapping their hearts out on a Thursday evening are the ones who voted for 10 years of Tory austerity and cuts to our healthcare service,” said Alison Arnold, who lives in Stoke Bishop. She says that it’s because of the cuts that “healthcare professionals are now being subjected to such terrible risks in the name of public service.”
Now, the woman who initiated the weekly Clap for the NHS has also spoken out, saying that it’s time for it to come to a close. Dutch national Annemarie Plas, who lives in London, started it off as a way to celebrate the NHS, but said last week that it has become too politicised and that this Thursday’s clap should be the final one.
Healthcare is not a performance
“I have found the idea of applauding the NHS workers repulsive from the start,” said Frith Trezevant. “A large number of people clapping the NHS actually voted for this current shitshow. I’m not one of them.”
Frith is a singing teacher and says that clapping should be reserved for performers. “Healthcare is not a performance. It is a professional intervention that brings a health benefit.
“I’d like see them valued and paid properly and with proper working conditions and contracts, but you can be absolutely sure that when this is over the economic effects of this virus will be borne by the lowest paid who will have even less job security and worse contracts in order to ‘boost business’.
“I’d lay a bet on that if I was a betting woman.”
Some of the people who wrote to us have worked in the NHS, like Celia Jones, a former nurse in Newport. When I called her up, she told me she enjoyed the clapping when it first started, but now finds it “ritualistic, meaningless and trite”.
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“It’s an excuse for a firework or two,” she said. In her area, the weekly event has turned into a bit of a party, with people setting off fireworks, someone playing a trumpet, someone swinging poi and people mingling and sometimes flouting social distancing rules.
“It just seemed like, bizarrely, like we were clapping for a bad thing,” she told me. One of her former colleagues, a retired doctor who went back to work temporarily when the call to return went out, has since died from coronavirus. She says it’s “horrendous” how many people have died. The UK has had the most deaths in Europe.
“So many medical staff have died, particularly from BME backgrounds.
“I don’t think it’s been managed very well. I don’t think this country has suppressed Covid-19, we’ve just managed it.”
In some areas, the very gesture that was meant to unite communities, has become an opportunity for public shaming. When the weekly NHS clap started, Julie* and her husband stood on their doorstep and clapped with everyone else for the first couple of weeks.
“Once we felt clapping had become a meaningless ritual, we stopped,” she told me, adding that she’s gone out to thank the bin men and other key workers for keeping going during coronavirus. “We are caring people and have friends all putting their lives and their families at risk.”
Their decision to not clap did not go unnoticed. Julie was approached when going to her local shop by three men, one of whom was the partner of the chairman of their local residents’ association, which they’re not members of. One asked pointedly how her hand was, which had been operated on over 14 months ago.
“They stood next to each other, arms folded, whilst he asked me repeated questions about my hand. ‘How is your hand?’ ‘It works then?’”
She was a bit nonplussed but gave them an update on how it had healed since the operation.
“He kept asking: ‘but you can use it?’”
She didn’t realise until after the strange encounter that they’d been trying to shame her for not clapping. She said it felt afterwards like she’d been on a stage, like she was being made a spectacle of. And all for not standing in her doorway and clapping on a Thursday evening.
“Since then we have been ignored,” she tells me. “This isn’t any bother to us as we have full and happy lives, but we find it disturbing that in these awful times there are ordinary people being made to clap in order to avoid bullying.”
People have suggested changing the weekly ritual to a chant, demanding PPE, better pay and testing for frontline staffm or even a ‘Boo for Boris’, but Celia says the clap should be replaced by a minute’s silence, “for the dead, and for the seriousness of the situation”.
*Name has been changed