Every Thursday at 8:00 p.m., British homes rouse from their lockdown slumber and empty into the streets for a few minutes of clapping, pot-banging, and drumming in support of workers in the National Health Service (NHS).
The weekly ruckus has caused quite a stir in my peaceful idyll of Virginia Water, where the last time we endured such powerful, noisy demonstrations was in 1998, when the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was under house arrest on the Wentworth Estate.
The sudden concert of noise caused quite the shock to my father, who was blissfully unaware of the launch of the NHS clapping craze and briefly feared that the junta general and his round-the-clock haters had returned to haunt him.
But besides the minor bout of PTSD inflicted on my old man, I worry that this weekly rendition will have more harmful consequences.
The first and most immediate issue has been the rise of clapping patrols, the Facebook-based vigilantes who angrily post on local residents’ pages about how “some people from my road failed to clap this evening.” I’ve seen several angry statuses from anonymous neighbors — clearly mindless fascists longing for a return to the Pinochet days — and just recently, an exhausted mother in Manchester was ‘named and shamed’ for not getting involved. Some people, I’m sure, are taking part in the outdoor noise just to satisfy the unspeakably weird obsessions of their nosy, bored neighbors, who must be completely intolerable to live alongside. As writer Niall Gooch has pointed out, “the ardent sentimentalist is often simultaneously a bully.”
But perhaps the more pernicious outcome of this health-worker hero-worship will be what it does to the already-lofty status of the NHS. Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson famously said that the NHS is “the closest thing the English people have to a religion.” And now, thanks to the coronavirus, it’s even got a weekly service of praise, far better attended than any Anglican evensong. And because of this quasi-religiosity, British politicians — many of whom are aware of the service’s tragic health outcomes in key areas of care — are required to demonstrate a penance of support towards it.
Serious questions should be posed about the NHS’s effectiveness in dealing with this crisis after we’re through the tunnel of lockdown, quarantine, and solitude. An open inquiry won’t be possible if any criticism is battered away as sacrilege towards “our brave health workers, whom we clapped for.”
There has already been ample pillorying for those brave enough to suggest that total, unswerving praise for the country’s regularly limping health service isn’t a good idea. Andrew Lilico — an interesting economist, itself a rarity, who appears to be driven by a dangerous mixture of divergent thinking and a total indifference to what others think of him — recently said: “NHS worship is going to be even more insufferable once this is done than it was before, isn’t it?”
Lots of angry people got in touch to tell Mr. Lilico what they thought of him. Some called him disgusting, many more called him neoliberal (gasp), but few — if any — bothered to grapple with what he’d said.
That’s probably because he’s right. James Forsyth, political editor of the Spectator and widely considered to be the best-informed man in Westminster, recently wrote that Tory strategists have aimed to revolutionize the party’s approach to the NHS, having discovered that for many voters it isn’t just a key issue, it’s the issue. And now that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has an “emotional connection with the NHS” after he was hospitalized with the virus, he will be more resilient to attacks that he doesn’t care about the service, and keener to show just how grateful he is for the care he received.
This likely explains why major government ministers and Tory members of Parliament have all joined in with the clapping renditions, proudly posting videos outside their front doors, or on Downing Street, joining in with the rest of the nation.
Our average-to-poor healthcare-providing deity will now gain an extra layer of protection from blasphemy, as even the most critical Tories will surely find the public backlash too great. “The NHS saved my nan” is a common meme used to describe some of the simple defenses of the health service; Tory critics will soon hear “the NHS saved your boss.”
But it’s not just ardent Tories and free-market-think-tank policy wonks who will bear the brunt of this additional religiosity. Nurses and doctors, who have worked exceptionally hard in difficult and dangerous circumstances, deserve better than people gathering to mindlessly thwack a wok. We need to promote an atmosphere that will ferment the best possible conditions for discussing how to make their line of work safer and more effective.
The oft-repeated lie that Britain is full of stiff-upper-lipped adults capable of regulating emotion is regularly disproven. Modern Britain is fond of emotive hysteria when it finds itself in tough times. The outpouring of vacuous public grief when Princess Diana died is a popular example. Weeping theatrics blind us from doing the right thing or having the important national conversations. Sometimes they also drive us to do doughnuts in the River Thames. They might now stop us from reducing harm and saving lives when the next epidemic comes along.
We can all do our bit to restore some seriousness and honesty to health-care debates — lord knows we’ll need them when we are past this pandemic — which is why I’m calling for a total and complete shutdown of the clapping until our nation’s leaders can figure out what the hell is going on. You too can do your bit. Next Thursday evening, save lives and stay indoors.