While the UK’s key workers lack PPE, ministers clapping for them is an insult | Owen Jones | Opinion

It has become the defining ritual of the corona era. Every Thursday at 8pm, neighbourhoods from Orkney to Penzance erupt with applause, cheers and the bangs of pots and pans. In a society in which an estimated three-quarters of us don’t know our neighbours’ names, communities bound together by shared appreciation for vital workers risking their lives during this crisis should move the stoniest of hearts.

To make a dissenting point may seem improper, an uncouth denigration of national unity amid unprecedented peacetime upheaval, but it must be made nonetheless. An expression of emotion stripped of meaning is an empty gesture; if riddled with hypocrisy, an insult. When an apology is given, and the sincerity is doubted, the common aggravated retort is: “Say sorry like you mean it.” When, therefore, government ministers applaud key workers who they have underpaid, whose social security entitlements they have slashed, whose health and lives have been imperilled by a lack of PPE, is it so impertinent to ask if they are clapping like they mean it?

When a hospital social care worker tells me that their newly awarded pay rise of £720 a year has left them “deflated” and “devalued”, are they wrong to conclude that “Thursday clappings are lovely, but I think we all know this government will still continue to view health and social care workers as a financial hindrance and claim there’s no future funding as it’s all been spent on this pandemic”?

An A&E doctor tells me that the “whole PPE situation is just shambolic”, and that fellow medics laugh at the absurdity of a government that could have acted sooner, but chose not to. Is it surprising they are reduced to profanities when a Tory minister graces their TV screens? These key workers are not just clapped, they are gagged: the doctor tells me that they have been instructed not to use social media in ways that may make the trust look bad, which he translates as: “Shut the fuck up and get on with it.”

They are far from alone: workers at Norfolk and Suffolk mental health trust have been told not to tweet about “political issues” such as “PPE, testing and exit strategies”. Our venerated NHS staff, silenced from talking about the dangerously political question of wanting to survive.

Clap, clap, clap.

In another hospital – one that has received fewer coronavirus patients than most – ward staff are instructed to reuse single issue items such as masks and lend PPE from A&E to ambulance crews. Community pharmacies were originally told their staff did not need PPE; when the advice changed, they were forced to buy it from wholesalers. “The Department of Health have been chaotic and completely inadequate with their support and handling of PPE,” says one pharmacy worker. “Their initial advice had put thousands of pharmacy staff at risk.”

The owner of a care home in Devon tells me that government guidelines changed at the start of this week, and now all personal care tasks require aprons, gloves and masks. The trouble is each of their homes has 300 masks, which wouldn’t last a week; they can’t get more “for love nor money”, despite attempting every suggested channel. “I imagine it’ll be our fault,” is his sardonic response.

Churchillian rhetoric is often invoked by our rulers – though it is sometimes more reminiscent of the dystopian thriller Children of Men than of our wartime leader – of Britain persevering against terrible odds, that we will rise to the challenge and pull through together. When the pandemic has been banished from the earth by scientific feats, our government will no doubt solemnly tell us to honour the sacrifice of NHS staff and care workers – dozens of whom have already perished while saving lives and tending to the sick – to treat them as fallen soldiers in a terrible war.

What will be omitted is that many of these workers died because their government failed to protect them. This must not happen. As the Sunday Times revealed this weekend, our emergency stocks of PPE were left to dissipate and become out of date because of austerity; the government’s embrace of herd immunity then ensured a failure to replenish this lifesaving equipment. Our rulers failed to join the EU scheme for bulk buying masks, gowns, goggles and gloves, and many companies that contacted the government to offer to make PPE have heard no response.

The good news: a long-promised delivery of PPE has finally arrived from Turkey; the bad news: the contents of the shipment are barely enough to last a couple of days.

Tonight, once again, millions will clap and cheer for NHS and frontline workers, ministers among them. When they do so, perhaps they will think of the Greek NHS nurse who returned from her own country – whose government acted quickly to avoid Britain’s current catastrophe – wanting to help. “Britain is a big country, it has money, I’ll be well protected,” is what she initially thought. Despite her asthmatic condition placing her at higher risk, she wanted to help. How wrong she was. “We don’t feel protected,” she then tells me. “Most of the European nurses, we’re not going back, we’ll fight for this country, but please protect us. I don’t feel safe at all.” No wonder, then, that 80 health professionals – doctors and nurses among them – have written to call for the British public to chant “Give Them PPE” at this week’s national applause: we should honour their call.

Our vital workers – doctors, nurses, pharmacists, cleaners, care workers, bus drivers, and so many others – undoubtedly appreciate the love and gratitude showered upon them from windows, doorsteps, walkways and balconies. They would appreciate even more equipment to protect them from a potentially deadly illness, a decent wage to support their families, terms and conditions that grant them security, and for their work to be properly funded and resourced. Until that moment, every ministerial clap is an act of hypocritical performance art, a patronising ruffle of the hair, an insult in lieu of an act of genuine care.

Too many of the now rightly lauded key workers will die because their own government failed in its most basic duty: to protect them. Don’t let the cheers, the clapping and the pots and pans drown that terrible truth out.

Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist

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