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'The NHS is worth fighting for – and we must join that fight'

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Ahh the change in seasons; getting out last year’s cardigans and wondering if you can get away with “retro” for one more year.

Putting away the flip flops or worse, as I saw one chap doing this week, keeping the flip flops but adding socks. The shops are also changing as we begin the run up to Christmas - the gentle introduction of mince pies in late September, followed by the full-on chocolate reindeer by mid-October. Come 7 November we can expect elves in the crisps aisle and Miracle on 34th Street on the TV.

And this year we also have the change in political focus around autumn, it being the long lead up to a general election. Of course one of the earliest indicators that canvassing has begun is how politicians talk about the NHS. After four years of it being treated it as an expensive luxury, barely tolerated by the folk charged with “rescuing our economy”, it is suddenly seen as a short cut to the nation’s heart. Political leaders are queuing up to show they care, from teary Tories to gritty liberals assuring us the NHS is safe with them. It isn’t of course. We know that.

To varying degrees, politicians see the NHS as a confusing labyrinth with no clear revenue stream that retains a place in the affections of the nation not dissimilar to a much-loved, faithful dog. And they know you can’t kill someone else’s faithful dog and have them vote for you. Unless you convince them the dog is diseased, dangerous and not as faithful as it once was.

In short “we’ll look after the NHS” really means “we know you like the NHS so we’re going to stroke it while we slowly poison it. Vote for ME!” So last week’s wholly appropriate and morally courageous strike action must have really annoyed the politicians. On the one hand, useful albeit annoying people wanting a living wage is, for your average minister, outrageous; on the other, they have to be very careful about who they condemn this close to an election. Especially as health workers, even the women, now have the vote. So they try to stay quiet - almost as quiet as the Royal College of Nursing - and wait for it to pass. Relieved the strike was for four hours, not four days. Secure in the knowledge that the action was more symbolic than destructive, that the conscience of nurses, midwives and colleagues is such that patients will not suffer but wages will.

In the past I’ve been critical of nurse leaders and I see no reason to change. But rather than waste words on the expedient and inadequate, it seems healthier to point out a positive role model instead.

I listened to Cathy Warwick, chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives, talk about the strike action last week and was struck by her clarity, by her calm almost gentle reasoning and her political integrity. She offered a model for all healthcare leaders to not simply establish the parameters of a debate but to refuse to go on to the defensive when challenged. In short, she made so many others, including health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who appeared on the same show later, sound rather inept.

Morally speaking, health professionals are right to strike. This is not just because they deserve better pay, but also because the value of the health service and its expertise needs to be fought for, articulated, demonstrated and reinvigorated. Poor pay devalues the NHS and makes it vulnerable. It also insults its bank of talent and its social worth. All credit must go to those fighting to save it. I hope more nursing voices begin to proudly articulate that struggle soon.

Mark Radcliffe is senior lecturer, and author of Stranger than Kindness. Follow him on twitter @markacradcliffe

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Pussy

    The NHS is a sacred cow and politicians are afraid to say what they really think because it would be such a vote loser. Most of the public haven't a clue and scurry in fear at the word privatisation which is actually the way forward. The NHS is unsustainable in its present mode and it will be totally unable to pay for the new and expensive treatments patients will demand but probably won't get. Private? Bring it on!

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