Just before hundreds of thousands across Scotland and the UK cheered on the NHS last night, I had a conversation with a nurse in Glasgow working in the emergency department, i.e. on the COVID-19 frontline. She told me that “colleagues are writing wills and getting life insurance in order”. They’ve still not been tested, though there is now a lot going on in the background in preparation for that, and the advice from the health authority on key issues like when and when not to use the protective visor “changes daily”: “One day staff were supposed to wear the visor when performing CPR and the next day not”. At least they appear to have visors at her hospital. A call-out to the public on Wednesday for thick acetate sheets on Radio Clyde News revealed the DIY measures many nurses and doctors are having to take in order to try to protect themselves. This is the on the ground reality: an NHS that has been left woefully unprepared for what is to come by government.
That’s why we shouldn’t misinterpret the cheering for the NHS from Downing Street to Dundee as if its meaning is one and the same. This is not a great national unity effort. As editor of the Lancet Medical Journal Richard Horton put it last night on Question Time, “it’s a national scandal”. The government had so many chances to learn from China, South Korea, Italy and Spain about how to prepare for this, and failed to do so. Now they dare cheer on the the nurses and doctors who they have sent into battle unequipped? Neither are we “all in it together”. Prince Charles showed that community tracing and testing was possible after all, but only if you are a Royal. And this is not the era of caring Tory Government just because they have found the Magic Money Tree.Outgoing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that the government’s spending to tackle the Coronavirus crisis showed the Tories realised that they had to “invest in the state” – I’m sorry Jeremy, you are wrong on this one. It shows that they have to desperately plug holes in a capitalist economy that is sinking to stop business collapsing, which means paying income of the employed and self-employed. But that’s very different from investment in public services. Indeed, Source is getting reports from across Scotland of care packages collapsing overnight, as resources are shifted away from long-term care to the emergency actions needed to deal with this crisis. That’s a re-prioritisation, not an investment. And it leaves behind many vulnerable people with nothing in place. An investment in the state would look like rapid expansion of local authority capacity so it can tackle this emergency and redeploy people laid off in the private sector to care positions, to ensure no vulnerable people are left behind. The public sector should be growing at a rapid pace, not solely spending more to cover for business collapse.
It’s amazing to see half a million people sign-up as volunteers for the NHS. It gives a lie to the idea that we are all hopelessly atomised and individualistic. But when I see Boris Johnson cheering them on and saying isn’t it great we are unifying as a country, I feel my stomach churn. Let’s say Johnson is our Lord Kitchener and this is his “our country needs you” moment. Just keep in mind that before being the poster boy for WWI recruitment, Kitchener established concentration camps in the Second Boer War, where men, women and children died in their tens of thousands, mainly from disease epidemics. And that when the Spanish flu emerged out of the stinking trenches of World War 1 at the war’s end, not many people were looking back fondly at Lord Kitchener and his poster.