The front page of last week’s Sunday Times went some way to illustrating the strangeness of modern Britain.
On the left of the page was an article expressing concerns over women beach volleyball players wearing more than male spectators want them to. The inclement weather means a bit of lycra and some bikini bottoms may not be the wisest PE kit of choice. Many red-blooded men – including Dave “look at me I’m a bloke” Cameron – expressed concern about the cover-up. The picture to the story carried the line “Players including Britain’s Denise Johns can wear leggings if the weather is cold” – with the picture showing Ms Johns not wearing leggings, nor a woolly jumper, just in case people weren’t clear as to what was at stake here.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the page, the less frivolous “Thousands of doctors face sack” headline told us that NHS chiefs have reached the inevitable conclusion that doctors and nurses are essentially holding the NHS back from its hopes of being a profit-making organisation. So it is time to sack them unless they agree to drastic changes in their pay (don’t get any) and conditions (no talking, you must pay to go to the toilet, you can never go home again).
I won’t bore you with the details, suffice to say they are all vague and ridiculous. By simply existing, by slipping seamlessly into the consciousness of a beleaguered workforce, perhaps they manage to prevent staff from asking: “How can we make things better?” and demand they ask instead: “How are we going to stop things from getting even worse?” Because the bigger the threat, the more defensive a tired workforce seems to get.
I should add at this point that the best line in the article – the one that sums up everything that is wrong with the blind managerialism that dominates health policy – is “the document outlines measures required to maintain patient services in the face of cuts”. Oh yes, to keep patient services going, we are going to need to get rid of the people involved with patient services.
Anyway, I am writing this on a Sunday. Tomorrow, I am teaching first-year nursing students. As I have said before, I like first-year nursing students. Yes, there is the odd surly one who is perpetually cross and should be doing media studies but, in the main, they are engaged and committed and thirsty for whatever it is they think will make them good nurses.
Frankly, you can argue all you like about them doing degrees, or going to university or not wearing hats but the simple reality is that once they decide they want to nurse, they have to do the course the profession gives them. They don’t get to choose to do the 1984 syllabus, or Project 2000 or the nice one that involved lots of folding that was popular in the early 1930s. They do what is required of them because they want to nurse.
And I wonder, genuinely, has there ever been a more difficult climate in which to begin nursing? Politically undervalued, economically marginalised, professionally isolated?
I said this to a friend recently. She replied: “They are mad. If I knew then what I know now….” But I didn’t believe her. On either count. I don’t think the students are mad – I believe they are among the best of us. And I’m not sure I believe my friend wished she hadn’t nursed. Indeed, I wonder if the fact that she still believes in what she is doing is what enables stupid governments to leak stupid papers without having a national strike on its hands.