“It’s hard to find the words to express my debt,” said the usually loquacious Johnson, pale and wan in a video clip, after days in the virus ward, where “it could have gone either way,” he said.
In Johnson’s short speech on life and death, the 55-year-old Tory praised the NHS as “powered by love.” His tribute underlines how Britain’s great socialist endeavor, a national health-care system, free for all, has emerged as the most trusted and vital of institutions.
Right now, the NHS nurse garners the kind of acclaim directed at New York City firefighters in the days after 9/11. A taxpayer-funded system for rationed care, born in the deprivation of 1948 postwar Britain, is holding this place together.
When the health secretary or finance minister address the country, they repeat over and over their call to “stay home, protect the NHS and save lives.” The rallying cry to safeguard “our NHS” is a powerful tool deployed to convince the people to submit to lockdown.
When the government desperately needed help to care for the vulnerable in isolation, to shop for their groceries and medicines, it created the “NHS Volunteer Responders,” and saw more than 750,000 apply in four days. Not because the government needed them, but because the NHS did.
When kids put crayon drawings of rainbows in their bedroom windows, it is for NHS. When people mourn public deaths, it is for NHS doctors and nurses, many of them immigrants or the children of immigrants. And if and when the government wants to track infections via cellular phones? It will be by a NHS-branded app.
Johnson and his ministers have been effusive in their praise for the NHS — and careful, too, to emphasize their full support. In doing so, they’ve also managed to gloss over a decade of austerity budgets for the health-care system overseen by their Conservative Party governments — budgets that created the very shortfalls in staffing, beds and ventilators that threaten to see the NHS overwhelmed now if the number of coronavirus patients surges.
Kevin Corbett, a retired nurse and a university lecturer, said the NHS helps the government stoke feelings of community for political purpose. “The clapping. Isn’t it sort of whipping people up into a frenzy of support?” he said.
Corbett said the crisis also underscored a pivotal question about the system: how valued, really, are the NHS workers? “Would you rather have someone clapping for you once a week or getting another 20,000 pounds paid to you,” Corbett said. “I know what I would like.”
Even in a normal winter, the NHS barely copes with the onslaught of seasonal flu. This year, before the coronavirus, the health service was reporting an overload, with patients waiting in trolleys, in hospital hallways, for hours.
Before the virus struck, the NHS was already suffering from a shortfall of 100,000 caregivers. Its nursing staff has been particularly taxed. As of 2018, there were 41,000 vacancies, according to an independent assessment.
As the Conservatives pursued “austerity” — a budget-cutting campaign by the governments since 2010 — the NHS remained the largest employer in England, but was experiencing a steep drop in the number of doctors, according to the Nuffield Trust research group.
Johnson campaigned on NHS investment — both ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum and in the run-up to his landslide general election victory in December.
“The NHS is a very potent brand,” said Julian Le Grand, a professor of social policy at the London School of Economics. Unlike in the United States, where people can be distrusting of big hospitals and insurance companies, the NHS is viewed as “an essentially altruistic, professionally-driven organization,” he said.
During the pandemic, the British public has been shocked by reports of NHS nurses donning garbage bags as protective gowns, and hearing doctors plead for more personal protective equipment (PPE).
Britain’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, said the government is making a “herculean effort” to import and distribute visors, gloves and gowns to front-line workers.
But the British Medical Association reported that this effort is falling short. A BMA survey found just 12 percent of hospital doctors and 2 percent of general practice physicians felt fully protected from the virus while treating patients.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents 800,000 of the 1.2 million NHS staffers, said even as government officials quote ever-growing figures of the many millions of pieces of protective gear being delivered, there remains high anxiety.
“Frontline staff, and those representing them, are pointing with increasing frustration to multiple instances of PPE not being available when required,” he wrote in the Guardian newspaper Monday.
Meng Aw-Yong, an emergency room physician at Hillingdon Hospital in London, said the crisis has meant he is working 60 to 70 hours a week in protective gear.
“It is really hot, it is really uncomfortable using PPE,” he said. “I almost fainted last week because it was so humid . . . You’ve got gloves on. You have a big over-suit. You have your scrubs. It is not pleasant.”
He admits he is exhausted, and has daily regrets. “For someone to die — and for the last thing for them to see is your face, not a loved one. And then they can’t even see your face because we have the mask on. It’s a horrible way to let someone die. It doesn’t feel right.”
In Johnson’s remarks upon release from the hospital, the prime minister called the NHS the country’s “greatest” asset. He singled out two nurses — Jenny McGee from New Zealand and Luis Pitarma from Portugal — who stayed at his bedside for 48 hours.
Johnson’s decision to highlight the two immigrants was notable. The prime minister was a leading cheerleader for Brexit, which was driven by calls to “take back control” of Britain’s borders and slash immigration.
Carrie Symonds, a former Conservative Party media strategist and Johnson’s 32-year-old fiancee, who is pregnant with the couple’s first child, tweeted “I cannot thank our magnificent NHS enough . . . there were times last week that were very dark indeed.”
Immigrants make up almost a quarter of all hospital staff in Britain. Analysis last December by the Nuffield Trust, an independent health think tank, found that half of the increase in health and nursing home care workers over the last decade were from people born overseas.
Immigrants also represent a “disproportionate” number of health-care workers who have died of the novel coronavirus, Hancock said this weekend.
Nineteen front-line NHS workers have died, including a retired village doctor from Syria, a midwife from Hong Kong, and a nurse from the Philippines whose Facebook profile showed him in a mask with the words: “I can’t stay at home, I’m a health-care worker.”
Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association, the main doctors union, said that “almost all” of the doctors who have died have come from abroad.
“These statistics are stark and disturbing,” Nagpaul told the BBC on Monday. He said an investigation was needed. He has also said that staff have “dangerously low” levels of protective equipment.
One doctor that raised concerns was Abdul Mabud Chowdhury. Last month he warned on social media about the shortages of protective equipment. Last week he died after losing a two-week battle with the coronavirus.
His son, Intisar Chowdhury, told the BBC he was glad protective equipment was now getting attention, “because it pains me to say that my father is not the first and he is unfortunately not going to be the last NHS front-line worker to die.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic and his hospitalization, Johnson promised to give preference to foreign-born NHS doctors and nurses in a post-Brexit immigration scheme. And now, the government has announced it would extend visas for a year, at no charge, for 2,800 migrant doctors, nurses and paramedics whose visas were set to expire in October — two months before the scheduled end of the Brexit transition period.
But a cross-party group of more than 60 lawmakers is pushing for Johnson to go further. They have called on the government to give foreign staff who work for the NHS — and their families — the right to stay in Britain indefinitely, as they believe that “those who have put their lives at risk for our country are welcome to live in it.”