The health secretary’s off-the-cuff remark highlights how nursing, a female-dominated profession, remains undervalued – even in the grip of a pandemic.
Bad times tend to reveal fundamental truths about society, in a way that more prosperous, healthier times do not. Right now, we’re seeing large swathes of the world wake up to the fact that – as so many of us have always known – healthcare is a right, not a privilege. In the UK, the terrifying arrival of Covid-19 has confirmed, beyond any ideological debate, that a properly-funded NHS is a must-have, not a ‘nice-to-have’.
As a result, we’re currently showing more gratitude for NHS employees and other key workers – supermarket staff, carers, postal workers – than at any other time in living memory. Brands are falling over themselves to donate products and profits to those on the coronavirus frontlines. My mum, who works in a hospital, recently returned from the supermarket in a state of happy bemusement: one glance at her NHS lanyard, she said, and people ushered her to the front of the queue that snaked around the carpark, like she was a celebrity or a soldier returning from war. Last night, for the second week in a row, people stood on doorsteps and hung out of windows on my street, clapping and banging saucepans and cheering for all key workers. Finally, we tell ourselves: finally, the people who keep this country going are getting the respect they deserve.
It’s a comforting thought. But then something happens that is so disrespectful to NHS workers that it brings you up short. On Thursday, shortly after we’d stopped clapping for our carers, health secretary Matt Hancock appeared on Question Time on BBC One.
“Nurses, doctors, all healthcare professionals put themselves literally on the frontline,” he said. “And we’ve seen very sadly four doctors die so far – and some nurses.”
Some nurses. They’re just two words, but they highlight how nursing continues to be undervalued as a profession in this country. We know, as we should, the names of the four doctors who have already died fighting coronavirus in the UK. Dr Alfa Saadu, Dr Amged el-Hawrani, Dr Adil El Tayar and Dr Habib Zaidi were all committed medical professionals with families. They were also Muslim men, and at least three of them were migrants to the UK – facts that shouldn’t be elided or forgotten, given the spike in Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment seen in this country in recent years.
Yet we can’t honour and remember all the nurses who have already died after contracting Covid-19, because we don’t know who they are. Some individual stories have made the news: just this week, we learned of the coronavirus-related deaths of nurses Areema Nasreen, 36, from the West Midlands; 57-year-old Thomas Harvey from north London; and 38-year-old Aimee O’Rourke from Kent.
But we have no idea how many other nurses may have lost their lives. The health secretary cannot even give us a number, and even Dame Donna Kinnair – the general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), who appeared alongside Hancock on Question Time – said she cannot get hold of official statistics on how many nurses have been infected with Covid-19.
“They’re not even counting the nurses, Matt,” she said, sounding incredibly tired. “I keep asking for the stats on the nurses that are ill, and…”
The underappreciation of nursing is nothing new. Historically, nurses have been undermined and pigeonholed as less skilled or knowledgeable than doctors, an occupation that’s still dominated by men (it’s worth noting that nursing remains an overwhelmingly female profession, with women making up 89.3% of all nurses and midwives). In 2017, the government scrapped the bursary for nursing students, so that people who want to carry out this essential, exhausting and relatively low-paid work are now forced to graduate tens of thousands of pounds in debt.
More UK nurses and midwives are now leaving nursing than joining the profession, citing poor working conditions and low pay. And in January, a study by the RCN and Oxford Brookes University concluded that nurses still don’t get the respect they deserve, despite “routinely [taking] on tasks that would have previously been the preserve of doctors” – something researchers attributed to gender stereotypes.
“Despite the growing complexity and technical nature of the work, as well as the difficult emotional labour it entails, ‘old-fashioned’ perceptions persist of nursing as a job carried out by women for whom caring is ‘natural’, thus deskilling and devaluing those involved,” said Dr Anne Laure Humbert, one of the study’s co-authors.
This disrespect for nursing has been seen in disturbing ways since Covid-19 reached the UK, with the RCN reporting incidents of nurses being spat at and called “disease spreaders” in public. But most importantly, many nurses have spoken out in recent weeks about their fears over being asked to treat coronavirus patients without adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).
“We feel like lambs to the slaughter,” one anonymous nurse from Wales told the i newspaper on Thursday. “All we have been issued with these are plastic aprons and these piddling surgical masks and yet we are told we can care for all the day-to-day needs of Covid-positive patients… Our every instinct is to care for our patients but we are being asked to put ourselves in harm’s way. It is simply not good enough.”
Nurses have always deserved respect. But they need more than the public’s gratitude as they put their lives on the line to fight Covid-19: all the applause and queue-jumping and free hand cream in the world cannot compensate for a lack of PPE. They need proper equipment to protect them from coronavirus – and they deserve much, much more than “some nurses”.
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