‘I Don’t See NHS Workers as Heroes. I Feel Sorry for Them.’

Tom Penn reflects on the applause for the NHS and their miniscule pay rise.

Two things occurred in March this year that I feel warrant revisiting; before the hysteria of the flu season is upon us and they are scratched from our collective memory for good.

First was the proposed 1% pay rise for NHS workers in England. Second was the unveiling not long thereafter, of Government’s new £2.6m, White House-style briefing room – our post-covid international order, Health and Safety Command Centre/Schoolmarm’s office.

Clearly it’d be somewhat of a redundant exercise to attempt wrangling some useful analysis out of the numbers themselves – £2.6m split between 1.5 million workers equals a one-off bonus payment of £1.73 each. The devil is in the principle however, not the sums.

By March 2021 our re-programming was already in the latter stages of completion. Like trained seals clapping at Sea World – and with Government’s brass balls balanced expertly on our browned noses – we had obediently learned to applaud the NHS as if each and every member of it’s staff were a reincarnation of Princess Diana.

Spotting an NHS lanyard in the supermarket we silently saluted their travails in the trenches; inadvertently tattooing ‘Brand Rainbow’ onto our brains. Pharmacies sold cuddly toys in rainbow t-shirts to raise money for, well, themselves obviously. Morrisons sold rainbow-cookies for a pound, in a paradoxical bid to show both solidarity for the institution, whilst contributing to an increase in it’s workload. People crayoned jejune ‘thank you’ rainbows and displayed them in their sitting-room windows, so that all in the neighbourhood knew they were on the side of the goodies. And then there was the equally stomach-churning, interminable applauding of thin air.

Maybe I’m over-cynical these days, but if I had been a nurse making his way home after a 16 hour shift last winter – a microwave lasagne awaiting me for dinner, eyes burning with exhaustion, mind frazzled by stress, and not having seen my kids for over 48 hours – and I’d driven past a row of houses whose residents were standing outside clapping my burden (or rather their own analytical sterilisation) I’d have been sorely tempted to veer off the road and mow them down.

I’ve personally experienced long, hard days in service of the vulnerable: up before 5am, the entire day then spent with my hands in other people’s faeces, piss, puss, worms, lice, and maggot-infested wounds. I’ve found more people dead on the street than I care to recount, and on occasion have had some poor, forgotten soul die next to me in a taxi; the driver hanging his head out of the window, retching at the stench. And for the entire last year of my time in the social-battlefield of Kolkata, I would pass frequent evenings researching and liaising online with various agencies, in an attempt to get a foreign paedophile – whom I had witnessed sexually abusing a 7 year old street urchin – arrested for his then ongoing crimes.

In no way am I blowing my own trumpet of virtue, but if one day, as I waded home through biohazardous monsoon rainwater up to my groin, people had started applauding my efforts, I would have been absolutely mortified at having had such a confusing, vulgar and invasive spotlight shone upon me.

I don’t see NHS workers as heroes. I feel sorry for them. There’s a difference. If you thought they were heroes you’d be posting bulging envelopes of cash through the letterbox of the nurse who lives on your street, not hurriedly clapping her mental breakdown during the commercial break punctuating Emmerdale.

They have entered into a vocational sphere of employ, desirous only to help contribute towards a more humanised society. I’m certain they all wish only to go respectfully about their work with focused dignity – for a wage befitting their invaluable skills – and to see the positive effects of their endeavours shining back at them through the eyes of their vulnerable patients.
They don’t want your scribbled rainbows, or for you to scoff multi-coloured rusks in retarded, robotic remembrance. They don’t want you to doff your cap in the supermarket; making them squirm with embarrassment in the face of such misguided shows of egoistic righteousness. They, like most, want simply to accomplish a fair day’s labour for a fair day’s pay; away from the spotlight of moral theatrics – crisis or no crisis.

But Top Brass don’t want that. They cannot be seen to be gratuitously rewarding compassion: it’s counterproductive to the ongoing war effort. Citizens must volunteer of themselves until it hurts, and without any expectation of recompense. The shifting goalpost of victory is the prize, and the shallow admiration of your fellow populace the medal of your recompense. Poppies have been replaced by rainbows, and National Service by Neo-Conscription. And we must all play our part – reward or no reward.

On Sunday 7th March this year, The Guardian reported on some of the ways in which NHS workers were being remunerated for their unwitting National Duty; in a bid to improve their working conditions. Drama, poetry, and virtual-origami sessions; free hoodies, water bottles, fresh fruit and pin-badges; ‘thank you’ boxes of confectionary, candles and moisturiser, and ‘Rest-nests’, ‘Sleep-pods’ and plastic ‘Meal-break igloos’. The workforce at North Middlesex University hospital each received a £25 shopping voucher paid for by Tottenham Hotspur football club. Other lucky so-and-so’s in the rainbow-raffle even won temporary free parking – at their own workplace!

I don’t know about anyone else, but after a tough week, at a draining job, and under particularly challenging circumstances, I like nothing more than to slather myself in chemical-cream, slip into my new hoodie, crack open a banana, and practice either my paper-folding, or my lines for the upcoming break-time production of Cinderella. Bliss. Then, sufficiently unwound, I like to light a candle, switch on the telly, and listen to my employers preach from behind IKEA lecterns – sat atop Carpet World’s bluest off-cuts, adjacent to a Curry’s flat screen TV; a few Union Jacks salvaged from a bankrupt pub limp in the background – that somehow all cost a whopping £2.6m. That’s five thousand lifetime’s worth at best, of squirrelled National Duty farthings for your typical Charlie Fairheads – ever the real casualties in Holby City Britain.

The 1% pay rise proposal was like an expired voucher, a packet of rotten dates, and a rusty pin-badge rattling around in the giant ‘f*** you’ hamper of government indifference. ‘How dare our troops, slopping around in the trenches of a warzone of our own creation, begin waving their white flags of disapproval. I mean, why join the army if you don’t want to go to war?’, their miserliness seemed to say.

In Israel compulsory military service lasts approximately 30 months for men and 24 months for women, depending on the role. In the UK it can last your entire working life it seems – depending on the role.

A nurse’s compassion is used psychologically against her by The Establishment, as leverage to encourage her life-long National Service. And we the addled rabble are complicit in this process with our pandemic-rainbows; at the end of whom not once has there yet been found a pot of gold. Instead, in July, the unhinged leprechaun of Government pulled down his breeches and squeezed a big, glittery turd into the mythical vessel, with an increased offer of a nonetheless pitiful 3% – in real terms, a fall of more than 7% since 2010, according to the Guardian.

If we insist upon participating in the diverting tactic of virtue-signalling in recognition of heroism, then let’s do it for the chain of people who keep us fed – and therefore alive – 24 hours a day for our entire lives; not NHS workers the likes of whom statistically you will likely never have to rely upon to assist you, or a loved one, through a severe case of covid.

If I had the powers of an Etonian Pol Pot, I’d ban virtue-signalling altogether. It’d be an offence punishable by up to one year in a re-education camp. It’d come to be viewed as an act of anarchic, social-bullying, designed to vandalise people’s self-esteem.

There should be no need for any of us to clap the efforts of any of our fellow citizens going about the business of staffing a civilised society. It’s just another form of veiled, compulsory National Duty; the performance of which unconsciously promotes one from conscript to recruitment officer during this protracted fiasco of false-idol worship.

It’s up to the lectern-lunatics to lead the ovation, not us, by incentivising recruitment into the sector with a pay rise well above and beyond the 12.5% the nurses’ union are calling for. Then, experienced healthcare workers, alongside an inevitable influx of willing new personnel, can finally just be left alone to get on with their critical work, with the grace and humility befitting their occupation.

A team of NHS workers pulled your walrus-like frame back from the brink Boris, and you still preferred to continue paying healthy people to sit at home, rather than use that money to thank your saviours.

If I had been on duty that day, I’d have ripped off your XXXL ventilator and shoved down your throat the mountain of loose change I keep scattered about my car; to pay to park at my own place of work. Then you’d have had your dance with the devil alright.
And every one of us – keyworkers to a man – wouldn’t have had to endure anymore, your insufferable programme of Neo-Conscription. That’s YOUR vocational work, not ours.