Written in late summer 2020
On the 26th March 2020 I completely missed the first clap for carers tribute. I was instead taking a shift handover in the site office. Unbeknown to me were the hordes of people along the river, the police, the ambulance crews, the public and hospital staff. All clapping and cheering for myself and colleagues.
My phone buzzed in my pocket; almost continuously new texts came through. I apologised to my colleague taking a quick glance at my phone. No less than 10 messages, all form a variety of people. Nothing I needed to deal with imminently. So, I pushed the phone to the edge of my desk, ignoring the vibrating.
Later when I read my texts, I had a plethora of ‘goodlucks’, ‘thank yous’ and ‘were thinking of yous’. It was as if I were going into battle. It was as if this first clap was the start of our covid journey. It wasn’t, we had actually just begun the downward trend from the peak of the first wave. It felt odd to be receiving these messages from family and friends, people who normally don’t bat an eyelid at me doing my job. A video from my neighbour of my own children banging pots and clapping for Mummy. I wasn’t sure how I felt, apart from the sudden pang of missing them and noticing that my son was using my best frying ban as a drum.
At first, I felt slightly uncomfortable with the notion of Clap for Carers, I felt quite self-conscious about the public display of gratitude. The NHS evokes a mixed bag of emotion from the public, when we do well people are grateful, thankful we’ve saved their life/delivered a baby ect. But when we get it wrong, which we inevitably do, we are criticised and scrutinised often in a very stressful and public manner. The press will villainise us, social media will share individual horror stories, we will be blamed for system failures, for lack of funding for lack of training. So, to see the outpouring of praise and thanks thrust in our direction, to me felt fragile and at times insincere. Surely the public, the press, the politicians, social media would turn against us again soon?
I understand that for people at home, confined to their houses, the CFC became an almost social event. Neighbours talked to one another, albeit from a far; people left their houses for the first time in days. Children go back outside, got to clap and shout loudly. People felt they were doing something! It became a new constant in such unpredictable times. A way for a society to come together to offer gratitude for those deemed not able to stay at home. For the general public it became a way to bond, to belong to see fellow human beings in the flesh, to remember that even though confined to their homes, they were actually part of a community. A community waiting to be able to engage with one another again.
On Westminster Bridge for a number of weeks, ambulances, police cars flashed lights and sirens. In the Thames below fire and police boats shot streams of water high into the air. From the 12 floors of the north-wing of the hospital well patients watched through the window. While the ITU was full of the unconscious, the sound of ventilators, filtrations and alarms, there, the claps could not be heard. Then soon the criticism came, staff weren’t socially distancing! Police weren’t wearing masks! Why were so many people congregated on Westminster bridge? The tables were turning, again we were becoming scrutinised. Yet, what I now find ridiculous, short-sighted and utterly naïve is that until ten weeks, ten whole weeks into the pandemic, key workers were not wearing masks nor socially distancing from one another. In fact, the 5th June 2020 was the press release from the government announcing that all NHS staff should wear face coverings around each other. 10 weeks after we went into lockdown. By this point most of the hospital staff I worked with were already doing so, even with the lack of legislation and national advice. So while the press were calling out the police for standing to close to one another, or the nurses sat along the wall of the bridge watching the gratitude of the boats, for sitting too close. These same people were sharing a work space together. The police drove in vans and cars without facemasks, the nurses sat at nursing stations and in staffrooms together. So, to be together outside hospitals, on Westminster Bridge or at the ambulance station felt the most natural and symbolic thing to do. We were already into together.
So for me it soon changed from a positive gesture, to me being overwhelmed, uncomfortable and often emotional to observe. As I became more tired, more aware of what was unfolding and how the world was changing, I didn’t want to hear the applause. I didn’t want to be hailed a hero, I wanted normality. I wanted to be able to leave my house, to travel to see my family. I didn’t want a clap.
As with many things in life, the CFC soon became political. Everyone had an opinion on what it meant, what it symbolised, how long it should continue etc. My own opinion (for what it’s worth) was that it ended at the right time. Some restrictions were lifting, the covid numbers were decreasing (albeit for a short period). I do think that when my own Grandchildren are studying history they will read of the camaraderie of the public, the nation coming together, no doubt even the pictures of Westminster Bridge will be in their history text books. The smiling faces of the nurses stood outside hospitals, children with rainbows painted on their faces, rows of houses with families stood meters apart hands clasped together. It will look jolly and fun, and I suppose to many it was. I can’t help compare it to my own history books, pictures of families lying in tube stations sheltering from the blitz, kids playing on the rumble of bombed houses. This too portraits a scene of togetherness, a giant sleep over, exciting and fun. Yet as those inside the tube -stations slept, outside the buildings burned. And while the public clapped, the hospitals were bursting with the sick, the dying and the over wrought and the over worked. History will re-tell its own version.