No sooner has Downing Street’s most notorious bully, Dominic Raab, reluctantly quit the cabinet, than Steve Barclay decides to escalate matters. Talk about fists in velvet gloves. One minute the Health Secretary is posting emollient tweets about NHS staff working “exceptionally hard” and how he has the “utmost respect” for us; the next he’s “regretfully” announcing his intention to drag the Royal College of Nursing to the High Court to prove its next strike unlawful.
I arrive at work to find the atmosphere mutinous. The nurses in my hospital – as in every other – are exhausted, demoralised and often close to quitting. They take on gruelling extra shifts to make ends meet. They know they could earn more in the local supermarket. I look at my colleagues’ faces – so decent, so weary – and think: what a fatuous own goal, what vindictive idiocy. Who in their right mind would take nurses to court rather than persisting with diplomacy?
No doubt Barclay will end up browbeating nurses into accepting a settlement that is, in fact, another real-terms pay cut. Perhaps he’ll crow in private at his triumph in forcing another healthcare profession to bend to his will. But NHS nurses aren’t striking because they’re militants or cheapskates. Our nurses are the best of us. They hold our hands, tend our wounds, wash our dead. They console us, diagnose us, save us. It must be blindingly obvious – even to Barclay – that stamping all over them will leave the country immeasurably poorer.
Back to my terrible teens
I have just finished Max Porter’s blistering new novel, Shy. Has anyone captured more vividly the inner turmoil and outward rage of a teenage boy? The story begins with 16-year-old Shy sneaking out of his school for troubled boys in the dead of night, with a rucksack full of rocks slung ominously on his back. How’s this for a description? “He’s sprayed, snorted, smoked, sworn, stolen, cut, punched, run, jumped, crashed an Escort, smashed up a shop, trashed a house, broken a nose, stabbed his stepdad’s finger, but it’s been a while since he crept.” I was transported back to that grimmest of times when puberty strikes and suddenly everything feels too garish, too alien, too unruly. This is a book that first electrifies, then haunts you.
A poison in public discourse
The Commons, I muse, has its own share of behavioural issues. There’s the bullying, the sexism, the disregard for the standards meant to govern public life. Sometimes there are even expulsions. I take grim satisfaction – but mainly relief – in the news that the anti-vax MP Andrew Bridgen has finally been expelled from the Conservative Party for comparing Covid vaccines to the Holocaust. Wholly unrepentant, Bridgen declaims: “I am grateful for my newfound freedom and will continue to fight for justice for all those harmed, injured and bereaved due to governmental incompetence.”
As usual, when I post a tweet about the topic, a deluge of hate, misogyny, death threats and cries for a Nuremberg scaffold for this evil, mass-murdering doctor ensues. As usual, it would be easier to keep quiet. But anti-vaxxers such as Bridgen, who set out to terrorise the public by ignoring the evidence on vaccine safety, and who spread pseudoscience far and wide, are a poison in public discourse.
Covid mRNA vaccines, as with all vaccines, have been found to have serious side effects in a very small number of people. No one, least of all practising doctors, denies this. But those side effects are set against a UK Covid death toll of over 200,000 people, not to mention the major morbidity, including permanent disability, caused by the virus. During the pandemic, I witnessed wave after wave of vulnerable patients dying from what was – before the vaccines – a horrendous disease. From that perspective, Bridgen’s efforts to reinvent himself as some kind of heroic freedom fighter look, quite frankly, grotesque.
Every little thing he does
I was overjoyed to learn that, on top of donations of an original artwork by Grayson Perry, a signed Don McCullin print and a Jon Snow tie, Sting has agreed to give us one of his signed guitars. All this kindness is to support Hospice Ukraine, a charity I set up with the neurosurgeon Henry Marsh after we visited Ukraine at the end of last year. All proceeds from our live launch event on 6 June at the Royal Society of Medicine will help fund palliative care teams operating in desperate conditions across Ukraine. Please do join us. Tickets at www.hospiceukraine.com.
This article appears in the 03 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Beneath the Crown