What were you thinking Boris, asks DAN WOOTTON: By giving the entire NHS a medal the Queen – whose own family hardly ever use it – has made this deeply-flawed organisation untouchable
Every Thursday at 8pm in March, April and May 2020 we collectively emerged from our home prisons onto the doorstep to bang pots and pans during the weekly clap for carers.
A terrified nation was united behind ‘protecting the NHS’ during what was, at the time, a genuinely unprecedented modern health emergency.
In January this year, when the idea was revived, there was barely a trickle of folk who took part. The streets largely stayed silent and the clap was forever shelved.
In those six months, Brits were rightly waking up to the hard-to-accept reality that, as an organisation, the NHS – a service for which we all personally pay for dearly through taxation – was not ready to protect us during a pandemic, however much we were exhorted to protect it.
Cancer patients were having treatment denied or delayed, waiting lists for elective procedures were swelling to record levels, and for some unfathomable reason many NHS GPs were refusing to see us face-to-face.
Why did Boris Johnson – who along with a committee recommends who will get the award – allow this to happen?
The collateral damage was unprecedented and the reverberations on our health will be felt for at least the next decade.
Some experts believe it’s even possible in the long-term that the NHS may have caused more deaths than saved lives by discouraging non-Covid patients from visiting hospitals and doctors surgeries during the height of the first wave.
That’s why I believe the decision to collectively award the NHS the George Cross today is a major folly.
I should stress that should not be taken as a slight against the individual heroes who undertake extraordinary feats on a daily basis to save our lives, but I’m certain most of those brilliant frontline staffers would rather a pay rise and proper resources than this form of gesture.
Or let’s identify the frontline workers who really put themselves at risk and give them a proper gong that recognises their particular courage.
However, this award is to the NHS overall, an organisation so full of waste and bureaucracy that it needs to fundamentally rethink how it is run to avoid the country being shut down again for over 15 months in order to protect it.
I believe the decision to collectively award the NHS the George Cross (pictured) today is a major folly
The longer that we lionise our sprawling health service – be it through Olympic opening ceremonies or gallantry awards granted by the Queen – the more impossible it becomes for politicians to have an honest discussion about the drastic action required to ensure the NHS is fit for purpose and doesn’t bankrupt the country.
The Queen’s handwritten message today appears to suggest the NHS is somehow above politics.
She writes: ‘It is with great pleasure, on behalf of a grateful nation, that I award the George Cross to the National Health Services of the United Kingdom. This award recognises all NHS staff, past and present, across all disciplines and all four nations.
‘Over more than seven decades, and especially in recent times, you have supported the people of our country with courage, compassion and dedication, demonstrating the highest standards of public service. You have our enduring thanks and heartfelt appreciation.’
They are lovely words and, as always, the Queen means well.
Even if I’m sure I’m not the only one thinking there’s a certain irony to them, given that the royals tend to avoid using the NHS like the plague unless they absolutely must.
A copy of the handwritten message from Queen Elizabeth II in support of the award of the George Cross to the UK’s National Health Services
In fact, the family tends to use the posh King Edward VII in London’s Marylebone, described as the capital’s ‘foremost private hospital’.
It was where the Queen chose to have surgery on her knee and Kate received treatment for severe morning sickness. Princess Margaret also died at the hospital. And Prince Philip was treated there earlier this year before his death but was briefly transferred to the NHS teaching hospital St Bartholomew’s for surgery.
In recent decades, royals have tended to give birth in private hospitals too, with Princess Diana and Kate opting for the Lindo Wing at St Mary’s Hospital. Meghan and Princess Eugenie both chose London’s private Portland Hospital.
There are exceptions in emergencies, of course. The Countess of Wessex was rushed to the NHS Frimley Park Hospital in Surrey to give birth to her daughter in 2012 after suffering from severe chest pains.
And why did Boris Johnson – who along with a committee recommends who will get the award – allow this to happen?
I fear this George Cross will make it even harder for the new Health Secretary Sajid Javid to make the tough reforms required, working with a new yet-to-be appointed NHS England chief executive, so this situation never occurs again.
I have spoken to staff at various levels and in different roles within the NHS anonymously over the past 15 months to find out the reality of life within the spluttering health service.
Many of these folk feel the collective awarding of the George Cross is misplaced.
One outraged NHS doctor told me: ‘It’s silly. How can an award for gallantry be awarded to hundreds of thousands of people?
‘Yes, there were some people – doctors and nurses – who really worked flat out, it was horrific, and they were and are traumatised.
‘However, many never saw a patient as whole departments were shut and were sat on their bums at home or in empty hospital rooms and took every opportunity to avoid patient contact.
‘Frankly, some still are. So no, it’s a nonsense and shouldn’t have been done. By all means, reward individuals if that is deemed earned but stop this virtue signalling around the ‘heroic’ NHS that has been far from heroic for many people in the last year.’
Another doctor added simply: ‘Don’t confuse good people with a totally dysfunctional organisation.’
An NHS midwife said: ‘The George Cross should be a real honour, and I’m sure the idea behind awarding it to the NHS as a collective is to say thank you and be inclusive to everyone from cleaners to consultants that have worked tirelessly.
‘But without sounding ungrateful I’d rather that the NHS was funded properly, that the work everyone in the NHS does is rewarded properly with proper pay and systems that work effectively. I’m tired of colleagues going without proper breaks, staying late and generally putting their patients’ needs before their own.’
There is also fury and despair within parts of the NHS about how non-Covid patients have been left high and dry, warning this is the worst time to, for example, be diagnosed with a life-threatening form of cancer.
One senior NHS worker told me today: ‘We stopped treating non-Covid patients. Appointments and operations were cancelled in thousands.
‘By September 2020 they had not even started to deal with waiting lists. Cancer patients were not being seen.
‘Many staff refused to come back on site including clinical staff who only see limited numbers of patients online. Many staff are claiming they are shielding and unable to work.’
But you won’t hear those stories discussed much publicly, especially given the NHS is cracking down on dissent from amongst its own ranks.
In fact, it feels as if the NHS is politically untouchable now – exactly where they want to be. But that is of genuine democratic concern.
The public does not work for the NHS, the NHS is meant to work for us.
Unless that balance is urgently redressed, don’t be surprised if lockdowns to ‘protect the NHS’ become a disturbing part of the public health playbook going forward.
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