Notes From the Margins…

Why I’m No Longer Clapping

  • May 05, 2020
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It seems a long time ago now, since the UK belatedly lurched into ‘lockdown’ on 23 March, and marked the occasion with a national call to ‘clap for our NHS heroes.’  At the time, this campaign caught the mood of a fearful population that was conscious of its vulnerability, because the government had finally told us how vulnerable we were, and which needed some form of belonging and togetherness as we all retreated into something most of us had never experienced before.

I remember very well the emotion I felt on the first Thursday of the quarantine, when I stepped outside at eight o’clock  and clapped along with my neighbors to show our appreciation of the NHS workers who were already bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic.  It was moving and oddly humbling to be part of that; to stand with my community in a spontaneous and entirely genuine expression of gratitude towards the doctors, nurses, and other NHS staff on whom our lives, and the lives of so many people we didn’t know, might depend.

Of course it should not have taken a pandemic to elevate NHS workers to the status of ‘heroes’ – or remind us us that the NHS is and always has been one of the most profound expressions of generosity, humanity and solidarity that this country has ever produced.  But those of us who clapped up and down the country that night knew we were in uncharted territory and we recognised the enormous risks that the COVID-19 now imposed on the nurses, doctors, and other key workers we applauded, and perhaps that knowledge made some of us feel a little guilty.

Since then, the #clapforourcarers campaign has become a weekly ritual, which the PM and other public figures have all encouraged and participated in.  We know this, because some of them have ensured that they were photographed doing it.  Johnson has led the applause for ‘our NHS’.   Prince Charles and Camilla have joined in.  Even lesser luminaries such as the hapless ‘Minister for Care’ Helen Whately have had themselves photographed on the Thursday clap-ins.

Before becoming an MP, Whately was a well-paid employee of the McKinsey management consultant company – a US firm which has consistently supported and attempted to benefit from NHS privatisation.   But last month Whately disseminated a video of herself on Twitter, clapping the NHS with a rictus grin,  only days after she had appeared on the Good Morning Britain show, in which she was unable to tell Piers Morgan how many people had died in care homes or even how many NHS workers had died as a result of treating coronavirus patients.

So this is a minister who could not even be bothered to look up these basic facts before going on prime time tv to talk about them, but who then had herself photographed applauding ‘our heroes’ purely in order to enhance her public image.  Just another hypocritical politician being a hypocritical politician, you might say.  Like Nigel Farage – the man who wanted to replace the NHS with private insurance – standing outside his home in full Alan Partridge mode, banging a pot last Thursday.

But isn’t it good that the pandemic has brought us all altogether?  That the near-death of our prime minister has finally shocked even the likes of Farage into a new appreciation of our carers and key workers?   It might be, if it was true.  But then you look a little closer and you notice that the same government that is asking us to applaud our carers is actually failing in its basic responsibility to ensure that these men and women are protected while doing their jobs.   You hear from Panorama that it is miscounting PPE items in order to inflate the numbers- not in order to help the NHS, but to make itself look as if really is ‘straining every sinew’ to get PPE, when it isn’t in fact, doing that..

You also learn that seven weeks ago the government downgraded its guidance on the seriousness of COVID-19 in order to force NHS staff to wear protective gowns that were previously categorised as unsafe. You learn that carers in care homes in Manchester have been ‘begging’ for protective equipment and not receiving it.

And now it turns out that throughout the period in which the government has been lauding ‘our’ NHS, it has actually accelerated the privatisation of the NHS by handing out contracts for testing, data collection, and other services to favoured firms such as Deloitte, Serco, and the US data mining company Palantir.

So they are fooling us, and doing it right in front of our eyes, even as they invite us to celebrate ‘our’ NHS; even as they ask us to applaud the ‘heroes’ who they they sent into ‘battle’ against the coronavirus without the protective equipment they should have received.

To point out these contradictions is not to question the courage, humanity, and self-sacrifice that so many NHS workers have shown throughout this crisis, or to suggest that they do not deserve to be applauded.

What I’m suggesting is something entirely different: that the government has attempted to co-opt these rituals for its own purposes, and that its veneration of the NHS is entirely bogus.  The signs were already there, when the Tory media machine began to promote its #clapforBoris campaign, which attempted with brazen and jaw-dropping cynicism, to categorise Johnson himself as a ‘key worker’ and a ‘hero’ who had fallen ill while trying to care for ‘us.’

Behind the bathos and the cultish loveability bestowed on ‘the boss’ by his supporters,  there was always the same malice and self-interest, the same gimlet-eyed fixation on the main political chance, that has characterised the Chief Grifter and his minions long before the pandemic.

You could see it in the savage responses on Twitter to the ‘You clap for me now’ poem/video, which was condemned by the likes of Katie Hopkins as ‘racist’ and ‘political’ because it tried to raise awareness of the BAME/immigrant workers who were also ‘heroes’.  It was there in the relentless and orchestrated smears and attacks on any media outlet that attempted to criticise the government’s failures.   None of this was accidental.  The Tory attack machine is directed from the top and it does what it’s told to do.

And every week the politicians who have presided over this machine continue to clap and smile beatifically outside their homes on Thursday, and cultivate a spurious unity that, in the end, is ultimately dictated not by any concern for the NHS or its ‘heroes’,  or even for the health of the nation, but only by their own political interests.

So I won’t be clapping anymore.  I will not applaud ‘heroes’ who should never have had to be heroic in the first place, and who we still have not found the decency to ensure that they are protected in the line of duty.  I won’t take part in a ritual that, to my mind at least, has been fatally corrupted by this government and its supporters, just as they have corrupted so much else, and which is now in danger of becoming a smokescreen to cover their failings and inadequacies – and the ongoing destruction of the service they claim to be supporting.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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