There is something quite British in being too embarrassed to acknowledge a crisis. I remember doing a home visit years ago – a gentleman let me in and took me through the house where an older, fairly large woman, was sitting on her kitchen floor leaning against the fridge.
“She missed the chair and landed on the floor”, he said with a bashful smile. Before I could ask how best I could help, the lady said rather loudly “I’m fine, I like it here. I didn’t miss anything.”
“Well… you missed the chair”, her husband said with a gentle shrug.
“How could I miss a chair?” she said with a false laugh. “I’m leaning on the fridge – it’s quite cooling you know”, she added in case we might have forgotten its key function. She would have chosen to stay on the floor all night rather than admit to having failed to sit on a chair.
“Those suggesting the NHS is not gripped by a humanitarian crisis are like those who plan weather defences”
I thought of her recently when the chief executive of the British Red Cross said the NHS was in the grip of a “humanitarian crisis”. This led a raft of Tory MPs denying it saying things along the lines of: “No, no we’re not, it’s fine. This isn’t a crisis. Yemen, that’s a crisis. Or that film Armageddon with Bruce Willis in it about the giant meteor coming to destroy Earth – that’s a crisis. This? Or…or Finding Nemo, that was a crisis. This is nothing, really.”
I suppose it is all relative, but I can’t help feeling that those suggesting the NHS is not gripped by a humanitarian crisis are like those who plan weather defences, then tell people who have been evacuated from their homes by boat that their houses are not officially flooded until the water reaches the loft. And while I would like to think the denials are borne of embarrassment or shame – because as a nation we should be deeply ashamed – in truth they are borne of politics. More accurately, the political battle over who gets to choose the language we use to explain the world we inhabit. A humanitarian crisis? Or just a silly fuss about nothing by some moaning minnies?
Here, the political battle over words is actually a struggle to establish what we will come to consider normal. By accurately calling it what it is – a humanitarian crisis – the British Red Cross has shone a light on the continued dismantling of the NHS and the insidious abuse of its staff. By choosing to do nothing to alleviate the crisis, and instead argue about semantics, our politicians and their attendants are letting us know this state of affairs is planned, expected. Normal now.
“We have clinicians for whom compromising care standards is becoming normal”
I think of this a lot when I am with new students. New nurses, junior doctors, trainee practitioners who came to the NHS hungry to help are having to learn it is ‘normal’ for hospital corridors to look like field hospitals. And, of course, experienced staff, absorbing as much as they can, often feeling undervalued, even unheard. We have clinicians for whom compromising care standards is becoming normal and we have a future workforce being told the new ‘normal’ means having a debt of £40k+ to become a nurse.
If we are to question the accuracy of the words ‘humanitarian crisis’, it cannot be by imagining that it is an exaggeration of the problem. The problem is, quite simply, the fact that the word ‘crisis’ implies something transitory, something impermanent. There is nothing to suggest this is the case.
The fear is that this crisis, as experienced by patients and staff, is not simply the worst January we can remember but a template to which we need to get used. So, think of this as normal, consider this mundane. It begs the question: what would a crisis look like?
Mark Radcliffe is senior lecturer, and author of Stranger than Kindness.
Follow him on Twitter: @markacradcliffe.