A tweet from the journalist Kay Burley caught my eye this morning. It was about nurses.
More specifically, it was about concerns raised by the Royal College of Nursing that a majority of their members believe they cannot provide the standard of care that they want for their patients. An RCN spokesperson had this to say:
“Nurses aren’t able to sit with their patients, help them with their food…help them bath if they can’t bath themselves.”
If you were to ask most nurses why they joined, I suspect they would tell you simply that it was because they wanted to help people: to care for the sick, to mend the broken, to hold the hands of those whose lives are ebbing, to comfort the relatives of those who have gone. And there aren’t enough of them to be able to do those things any more. At least, not enough to do those things well in every case where simple human kindness is the only thing that really matters.
The Health Foundation charity estimate that there are almost 44,000 nursing vacancies in the NHS. And the RCN suggest that more than a third of those who are still working are actively searching for another job. In an interview published in The Observer last Sunday the former nurse and bestselling author, Christie Watson, had this to say:
“The truth is, the NHS has been desperately underfunded and the staffing situation, particularly with nurses, it’s horrific. The NHS is not failing. It is being failed.”
Three days ago, I read an online account – written by an anonymous doctor – of a carefully stage-managed (and, from the doctor’s point of view, deeply unwelcome) Boris Johnson visit to their hospital. The leader of the Conservatives was on the election trail. In the part of the building where the charade was played out, the walls were still wet with fresh paint. Staff had been instructed to hide dirty laundry. To present an illusion. And photos were taken of Johnson pouring tea. Elsewhere though, the realities of life on the healthcare frontline were unavoidable:
“It was a busy shift. A&E ran out of beds, as usual, and I dash past sick 90-year-olds waiting on trolleys in corridors on my way to resus to see the sickest. It’s not yet winter, but in the NHS, it’s always winter now.”
The unnamed doctor finished their piece by saying this:
“I have been a doctor for nine years. Almost every doctor I know has an exit plan. So many have already gone. Without hope that things are going to change, I don’t know how many more NHS winters I’ve got left in me.”
These are the real accounts of real doctors and nurses who started out on their medical careers because they wanted to help people and they are now stumbling under the burdens they are being asked to carry.
The stories of these healthcare professionals echo those being told by police officers up and down the country. The best of those officers (and you can number them in the tens of thousands) all joined for the same simple reason as the nurses: they wanted to help people. To save lives; to find the lost; to bind up the broken-boned and broken-hearted; to protect the vulnerable; to defend the week; to step into harm’s way in defence of complete strangers; sometimes to risk it all.
And there aren’t enough of them to be able to do those things any more. At least, not enough of them to be able to do those things well in every situation where courage and humanity are the only things that really matter.
Between 2010 and 2018, the government cut 44,000 officers and staff from policing in England & Wales. And those that remain are buckling under the strain. Many of them will tell you that the thing they find most difficult of all is the realisation that they are no longer able to do the things they joined to do. They are unable to spend that extra half hour sitting with the elderly victim of a burglary, because the other calls are backing up. They are unable to carry out a thorough investigation of the hate crime, because another boy has been stabbed half a mile down the road.
And when you start to believe that you are no longer able to do the things you joined to do, it can begin to break your heart.