Captain Sir Tom Moore died two weeks ago. A remarkable man: A veteran of the Second World War, he raised over £32 million for the NHS last summer, by walking up and down his garden at the age of 99. Beloved by a nation, he became a focal point for the good that can be done during crisis situations, a pillar of the Great British Blitz Spirit. When he died, at the age of 100, Boris Johnson asked us to clap for him. That made me uncomfortable.
Captain Sir Tom Moore’s marvellous effort has been hijacked by the government to distract attention from the Covid deaths of over 120,000 people.
Captain Sir Tom Moore should not have had to raise £32 million for the NHS. The NHS is state-funded and should be adequately funded by the state. It should not have to rely on charity – not bake-sales, not Zoom raffles, and not a war hero shuffling for hours on end around his back garden.
The NHS is in crisis and it has been for a long time. Ten years of austerity cuts have left it drastically underfunded. Demand has rapidly increased as funding has stayed fairly stagnant, to the point that nurses are currently working on wages which are 19 per cent worse than a decade ago in real terms, according to Unite.
The NHS also faces a staffing crisis. It has 100,000 vacancies, with many nurses set to retire or taking early retirement to escape the stresses of the pandemic, and very few coming into the system. While Brexit is cutting off our supply of nurses from the European Union, the NHS has resorted to recruiting nurses from abroad.
Young people like me, facing the prospect of a bleak job market and crumbling economy, could take advantage of these job opportunities and train to become nurses in our thousands. Yet why would we? Nowadays, it costs nearly £30,000 in tuition fees to become a nurse. The course is unusually gruelling, with ridiculously long terms and short holidays, and students are used as free labour by the government, learning on the job and paying for the privilege. And this is all to work long hours for little pay on understaffed wards and, at the moment, suffocating PPE. It’s a wonder people choose to do it at all.
Yet thank goodness they do. For whatever reason – perhaps sheer selflessness – nurses continue to work for the NHS. They continue to gear up in their masks, face-shields, and respirators, to tackle the emotional strain of the ICU and the chaos of A&E. They continue to save lives during this pandemic despite considerable risk to their own, and for that we must be eternally grateful.
The Tories like to declare how eternally grateful they are. They fan the flames of national pride by labelling key workers ‘heroes’, showering people like Captain Sir Tom Moore in adulation, and organising national claps at 8 o’clock on Thursdays. They buy into the worn-out, rose-tinted, vaguely imperialist iconography and rhetoric of the Second World War. They pay lip-service to valuing the NHS, knowing full well that it is a source of immense national pride, that voters love this little slice of socialism. The country is encouraged to come together in patriotic unity, proud of a revived blitz spirit, in love with the NHS, and grateful for appreciation from the government.
Such empty praise serves as a clever deflection tactic. The death of Captain Sir Tom came shortly after it was announced that over 120,000 people have died in the UK due to the COVID pandemic. This is an opportunity, indeed a duty, to interrogate the government over its colossal failures. We have the worst death toll in Europe. It has been estimated that as many as 85,000 coronavirus deaths could have been avoided with better government policy. That is criminal. But instead we clap, we praise, and nothing gets better.
‘Heroes’ deserve more than just words and clapping. They deserve proper pay. They deserve to work in hospitals where there are enough staff and enough beds. They deserve not to have to face continually high cases of coronavirus because of this government’s abysmal record on PPE, and its lax and erratic lockdown tactics.
If the Tories are so keen on telling key workers how much they’re appreciated, maybe they should put their money where their mouths are. Maybe they should fund the NHS properly. Maybe they should abolish tuition fees for student nurses. Maybe they should take the responsibility away from generous pensioners for funding and ask big corporations to pay their taxes. Then maybe fewer people would die.