Long Reads

Adam Kay: “There’s only one thing I would do for the NHS if I were prime minister”

This Is Going To Hurt author, Adam Kay, has just published a new book to support the NHS, which includes essays from brilliant people such as Emily Maitlis, Juno Dawson and JoJo Moyes. Here, Kay talks to Stylist about the book’s most surprising chapters, and tells us the one thing he wants to happen for the NHS during the pandemic.

Adam Kay has an apology to make about a big inaccuracy in the title of his new book. Dear NHS: 100 Stories to Say Thank You actually comprises of 109 essays. But as he has pitched, curated and published the book within a matter of months, during a pandemic, we’ll let it slide.

Then there’s the fact that profits from the book’s sales are going to NHS Charities Together and The Lullaby Trust. And, with the likes of Malala Yousafzai, Emma Thompson, Paul McCartney, Emilia Clarke and Jacqueline Wilson penning their essays to be included, who are we to nit-pick?

“When I approached people, I didn’t give them any brief whatsoever,” Kay tells Stylist. “I guess one worry I had at the start was ‘Is everyone just going to say the same thing: god bless the NHS?’ But each person has come at it from a different experience and there is some beautiful writing in there.”

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He’s right: it’s a full breadth of thank yous, from the hilarious to the heartbreaking, including some surprising entries.

“I wouldn’t have expected Jimmy Carr to write such a beautifully moving piece about his mum; it took my breath away. And it’s difficult to read Dawn French’s chapter without choking up. I also had no idea that Jacqueline Wilson had faced so many health issues – but, then again, why would I know? 

“They are such personal details, and I’m so humbled and grateful that these brilliant people have opened up. Because the point is that it doesn’t matter how big, famous and successful you are: you’re just a person who relies on the NHS in the same way that you and I do.”

Dear NHS book
Dear NHS: 100 Stories to Say Thank You, edited by comedian Adam Kay.

Kay, of course, has plenty of personal experiences of the NHS: he worked for a number of years as an obstetrician and gynaecologist before making a move into comedy writing. 

In his best-selling book and stand-up tour, This Is Going To Hurt, he reflects on his time in the NHS with equal measures of heartache and hilarity. This ability to “find light against the dark” was a coping mechanism that many people will no doubt understand. “It was my way of dealing with the bad stuff that happened,” he recalls.

So, what does a former NHS doctor want to say about the state of things at this stage in the pandemic? It’s fair to say that, as well as compiling a book that raises awareness and funds for the NHS, Kay has been a voice of the nation on Twitter during Covid-19. That’s why we’re so keen to get an insight on what he wants the government and public to do right now. 

Stylist: If you were prime minister for the day, what three things would you do for the NHS right now?

Kay: It’s easier than that: it’s one thing – the NHS needs adequate funding

We’ve got away with this pandemic because of, as ever, the brilliant NHS staff – all 1.5 million of them. We saw them pulling out all of the stops: all credit is due to people working mad, multiple hours and constructing intensive care units out of operating theatres. 

But we came into this 100,000 members of staff short. It’s been a triumph of ingenuity, but it’s an NHS that wasn’t prepared for this kind of thing. Everyone has been warning about this for years: it needs more funding. 

And it doesn’t just need funding to buy clever new equipment; it needs more funding in recruitment and retention, to make sure there is enough staff for crises.

Basically: I would adequately reward the people who work there and I would make sure there were enough people to provide the service. That’s what it needs.

It’s all very well the public loving the NHS, but we need the powers that be to love it too. I don’t want to see the prime minister doing a statement about how the NHS saved his life and how wonderful they were. I don’t want to see him clapping outside Downing Street – I want to see him committing to adequately funding our national health service. 

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Stylist: What can we as individuals do to ensure real change is made to help the NHS?

Kay: We are all very powerful. We elect the people who make the decisions. 

On a local basis, if your local A&E is going to be defunded or if they’re reducing the child health support or whatever it is on local issues, people can make some noise to their MPs – and that does make a difference. 

Something we’ve learned from this pandemic is that the government has been quite reactive. At the start, for example, the financial measures introduced by Rishi Sunak missed out the self-employed. There was a huge roar from self-employed workers, which resulted in extra measures being announced

And what Marcus Rashford did for free school meals was wonderful. It’s shameful that that sort of thing needs to happen: you would hope that a government would have human kindness for the most vulnerable in society of its own accord. But all credit to him for not letting go.

I think it’s a government that cares what people think about it, and that actually gives extra power to the public. I fear that we will have to, in the coming months and years, let our leaders know that we’re worried about the health service.

But it does make a difference.

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Stylist: As lockdown continues to ease at a faster pace, what advice would you give to the public?

Kay: The pandemic isn’t over and I think politicians have made a decision to ease things a lot faster than the scientists would advise. People are still dying: that doesn’t feel to me like a situation that is over.

There is a level of personal responsibility that we all have to take. I was very disheartened, as I’m sure many people were, to see pictures of thousands of people crowding on beaches. The virus spreads in predictable ways and you can stop it from spreading by not being next to someone, and by both people wearing a mask, which isn’t what I saw in those photos. Besides everything else, it just didn’t look like a particularly pleasant trip to the beach.

We’re actually still in the first wave. And, as far as I’m concerned, not following social distancing is the ultimate disrespect to the grieving families. 

But I know it’s obviously a lot more complicated than that: there are huge effects of what happens to society during lockdown. That’s why I don’t want to be the person making the decisions.

I hope I’m proved wrong, but it does feel a little hasty. For example the Royal College of Anaesthetists has been telling its members to get some holiday and some rest now because it might very busy at the end of the year.

Like I say, the virus has behaved predictably so far, and if it continues to behave like this, then what we’re doing now is going to make things worse rather than make things better. 

Dear NHS: 100 Stories to Say Thank You is now available to buy online from Waterstones. You can order here.

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Images: Orion, Adam Kay