Jennifer Darlow: Thanks for the support, but I don’t want your clapping

When this pandemic has passed and the applause has faded, the NHS will need support more than ever, argues Jennifer Darlow

For the past few weeks, people have stood outside their homes or hung out of open windows and clapped. In huge numbers, they’ve been applauding NHS workers for their efforts in treating patients in the covid-19 crisis. My social media feed has been full of emotional tributes to our hero healthcare workers, as well as outpourings from my work colleagues after being overwhelmed at the emotional support offered by other people. Posts have recently been appearing saying that any one of us who is working through this should be awarded a medal.

We have been hailed as these breakthrough superheroes, coming out of nowhere to take on what has been described as the biggest threat to our country in peacetime.

But to me, the clapping is bittersweet. I don’t want it. Let me explain why.

It’s not that I doubt people’s good intentions. I sincerely believe that those clapping genuinely want to show their gratitude. It’s just that for me, it’s tainted. 

What we need, and have needed for years now in the NHS, is more resources. We have been feeling the blunt edge of staff shortages long before there was a global pandemic. We have seen patients stuck in hospitals for weeks on end as there is not enough social care provision for their discharge. Nurses and allied health professionals work long, unsociable hours on very poor wages. We have constant gaps on medical rotas. On our wards, we don’t even have tea bags for staff to use. Treatments are delayed, chemotherapy is postponed, operations are cancelled—all due to a chronic lack of funding, support, staff, and government dedication.

In 2017, a Conservative government also cheered, but this time when parliament managed to block a vote to give nurses a pay rise. In 2016, the junior doctor strikes ushered in bitter press coverage, with claims that doctors were “plotting” and “causing unprecedented havoc.” Brexit has seen more than 10 000 NHS workers leave our health service. Many of those clapping in previous weeks, and who will continue to clap every week, are those who have brought about these changes.

In 2017 when the Manchester Arena bomb went off, I was working the night shift in a Manchester hospital. We watched everything slowly unfold, and throughout the hospital our understanding of the full horror of the event came together piece by piece, as news spread of the scale of the casualties who were arriving. After this horrific event, there was a similarly kind and well intentioned response from the public. Staff got free ice cream, more pizza than we knew what to do with, and enough toiletries to sink a ship. We were honoured by a royal visit and the singer Ariana Grande came to see the children who’d been affected in the hospital. The general public could not sing our praises enough.

Fast forward two months, and we were back to the same old NHS—understaffed and underfunded—with nothing really having changed. 

While this virus continues to be prevalent, its effects will be devastating. But perhaps far more devastating will be the effects for years to come. With waiting lists already at the longest they have been for years, months of disruption and cancellations are going to have a huge knock-on effect. This will be compounded by the fact that people who were awaiting elective and non-emergency treatments, and have had those treatments delayed, may continue to deteriorate in this time and need more input and resources when they finally come to be treated. It is at this point that the NHS will be put to the true test—when the spotlight is off us, and our “hero” status has died away. 

So when the applause has faded, when the medals are tarnished, when the ice cream has melted, and the superhero capes are put away, please don’t forget us. I would say to the general public, thank you for your well intended and heartfelt support. But I don’t want it in the form of a clap. I want to see real change—in wages for our less well paid colleagues, in resources for our hospitals, and in the number of staff available. Without your support, and I mean real support, the fear you felt that your hospital would not be able to look after you if you became unwell, long after this crisis is over, may still become a reality.

Jennifer Darlow is a haematology ST5 trainee in the North West Deanery. She currently works at the Manchester Royal Infirmary, and is in training to become a paediatric haematologist.

Competing interests: None declared.