Who wants to be a hero?

Anne Madden, former Health Correspondent of The Irish News and freelance writer. All views my own.

In recent commemorations we’ve looked back in anger and dismay at the atrocious waste of life during World War 1. A century ago feckless army generals sent thousands of young soldiers ‘over the top’ with mere hand rifles and bayonets into the line of machine gunfire. The ‘glorious dead’ were celebrated as heroes willing to sacrifice their lives for the nation. While everyone was clapping last Thursday night for the NHS heroes, I found it deeply unsettling and I know many healthcare staff did too. Yes, it was a well-intentioned, positive gesture but the sight of Conservative politicians applauding the NHS which they have stripped off resources for more than a decade was nauseating. No one in the NHS wants to be a hero, they just want to do their jobs. But this pandemic has bounced everyone out of their normal jobs and into very unfamiliar, indeed, terrifying territory. From cleaners to consultants, everyone is scared. Scared for themselves and their families.

Overnight a lab consultant is expected to operate a ventilator; an outpatient nurse is sent to work in ICU; a final-year medical student is minding critically ill patients before they even graduate. An already demoralised workforce, with nurses in Northern Ireland fresh from strike action over pay, is simply expected to step up in this time of crisis. It’s all hands to the pump. Jolly good chaps!

Of course healthcare workers will step up and have been since this virus first emerged. They have already been putting themselves at risk by working in GP surgeries, nursing homes and hospitals with little to no protective gear. Despite government knowing since January that this plague was on its way, supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) have been tragically scarce. This is the face masks, visors, goggles, aprons, gowns and gloves that all healthcare workers should be wearing right now. Instead staff, from GPs to care home workers, have been left exposed to the virus that could have been coughing over them again and again.

The government is delighted with the thousands of retired healthcare workers that have agreed to return to the frontline. Jolly good ol’ boy! People are certainly capable of great heroics in a crisis. The government PR machine has been at great pains to highlight these valiant warriors and shout down the growing clamour for the personal protective equipment (PPE). What ho! It’s on it’s way…

Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Jenny Harries insisted at the government press conference earlier this week that there is enough PPE supplies for the whole NHS. If that is the case, why have schools across Northern Ireland been asked to empty their cupboards of masks and aprons from science classrooms? Why have NHS trusts across England been asking schools to donate science goggles?

There has also been a massive amount of confusion about guidelines for what PPE should be worn in particular scenarios e.g. full gown versus apron, or visors v. goggles. Some face masks are little more than dust masks offering no protection. Specific FFP masks, fit-tested for the person’s face, are deemed essential if in close proximity to an infected patient. The WHO had established guidelines but Public Health England which Northern Ireland follows, has been reviewing and adapting them – in the middle of a crisis! The result has left many medical staff distrustful of the guidance and pondering if these are being diluted because of the supply chain debacle.

NHS staff are rightly concerned about the risk they are taking. To date at least 66 doctors have died in Italy and three so far in the UK. As nurses and doctors deal at close range with the sickest of patients they are exposed to a higher viral load which puts them at much greater risk of a serious strain of the infection. Compare the precautions taken when medical staff deal with highly contagious TB (Tuberculosis) patients. All staff are suited and booted with masks, gowns, gloves – and yet TB is a curable condition.

So imagine your normal job, stressful as that is, has been turned upside down and you’re being expected to put your life on the line for your fellow countrymen? Last week factory workers for Moy Park and Linden Foods in Northern Ireland simply walked out over fears their lives were being jeopardized because they claimed companies had not implemented adequate social distancing policies. Our healthcare staff face a much greater threat and yet it would be socially unacceptable for them to even contemplate a walk out?

The outpouring of hero-worship, heartfelt as it is, helps keep a lid on the grumbling and genuine fear on the frontline. Public discourse rightly hails them as heroes, but history may judge their generals in government and the NHS more harshly. Of course our boys and girls will go over the top and take the fight to COVID (20)19. But consider this, when the pandemic is over who will be left to look after you or your sick relatives because if the virus doesn’t get them, fatigue, trauma and anger towards the NHS will see many leave in their droves.

NHS” by LoopZilla is licensed under CC BY-SA