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‘We have seen a systematic and Orwellian assault on nursing’

Mark Radcliffe
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I ’m not sure it has ever been harder to be a nurse. I may get a letter from someone reminding me how difficult those first few weeks of the Crimean War were, and there may even be a few romantics from the 1950s anxious to remind us that in the old days student nurses had to hand wash and iron the whole of Wolverhampton before they were allowed to speak. But let’s face it – it is harder today than ever and it’s probably worth wondering why we are letting that be the case.

I wonder if there is a clue in the ‘doublespeak’ that laces politics. Doublespeak is about being deliberately and manipulatively ambiguous and emerged from George Orwell, who observed “political speech is largely the defence of the indefensible”.

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when the chancellor Phillip Hammond glanced out of his window to notice that nurses will have had a pay cut of 12% over the course of a decade and as a consequence are leaving, becoming unwell and in some cases being forced to use food banks. “We must act” he shrugged before settling down to watch 12 episodes of Say Yes To The Dress. “But we must ensure a pay deal that is fair to taxpayers”. Or as the rest of us may refer to them: ‘patients.’

Governmental responsibility to the taxpayer is never mentioned elsewhere is it? MPs expenses for example, dropping bombs, or Brexit. Nursing, however, is framed as a drain on resources, a burden to the taxpayer and the policies that emerge are premised on the idea that nurses are a problem to be solved, and not the glue that holds society together.

Those policies are numerous, even Jeremy Hunt, their architect, manages to refer to them as natural phenomena that we have to work around. “Recruitment is down because some oaf took away the bursaries” he sighs as he shakes his fist at the skies and shouts in his Charlton Heston at the end of Planet of The Apes voice; “damn you, damn you all to hell”. Yeah, that was you Jez, and stop saying you have created more nursing places at university – you haven’t. What you have done amounts to putting some deck chairs on the space shuttle and telling the world that everyone has access to a trip to the moon. Just so long as they pay a billion pounds for their seat and don’t expect a lift back.

If you ask Mr Hammond what he thinks of the nursing associate programme he will say “On behalf of the taxpayer, I do like a cheap option”. And he’ll say it because he knows that in 10 years’ time the skill mix in any clinical area will be nursing associateheavy and registered nurse-light.

Nursing has been reframed as an expense and doublespeak has been a tool that has helped successive governments get away from it. Where once we talked about meeting needs and imagined such things marked us out as civilised, now we talk about ‘fiscal responsibility’ and imagine it marks us out as prudent or clear-minded.

In truth the last 10 years has seen a systematic and Orwellian assault on nursing. It has been assigned a new place in the social order – economic indulgence. You want a pay rise? There was talk that you would have to up your annual leave. Maybe throw in some body parts. “If you want to keep treating the sick you are going to have to pay for it.”

It does rather beg a question though, who is on your side? Who is standing up for or with nurses? Who is not buying this long-term linguistic assault? Or to put it another way, why aren’t more people seeing through the ideology and manipulation and protecting their services?

Mark Radcliffe is author of Stranger than Kindness.

Follow him on twitter @markacradcliffe.

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