clap for our nhs

Why clap for our NHS when you can vote for it instead?

More and more, commentators are delicately questioning the method and/or madness behind our weekly ritual—the Clap (no, not that clap). Why do we clap for our NHS? What can previous love-ins teach us about bringing about social change, and the futility of just ‘making noise’?

Why do we clap for our NHS?

There is a spectrum. As sure as day is day, everyone brings their own. From those who mean to express sincere gratitude by sending plosive prayers to any nurses within earshot, to those engaging in community noisemaking for the sake of something to do. There are questions to ask. Is this a celebratory applause?—Is it effective?—Or is it somehow redemptive? Are we, the public, masking our guilt at having let our frontline workers take the blunt force of our national trauma?

The phrase that rises to the surface, amid the clanging and the whooping, is cynical but true. It doesn’t pay the rent. We have all, by now, seen some reference to the Conservative ‘vote against NHS pay rise’. However worded, our face-of-it understanding of this is that the evil Blues applauded stagnating salaries for nurses. “At a time like this!” “It’s shocking!” The commonly cited vote took place in 2017, and was actually on an amendment which mentioned lifting the cap on pay rises, among other issues.

But the issue remains.

Care and social workers, delivery drivers, nurses and other lowly frontline workers are among the least paid and least respected in society. Ask any worker in this category with the advantage of perspective, and you will likely receive a litany of ways in which the system could be improved. Whether it’s down to inefficient management and a creaking infrastructure (see PCNR, BMJ or The King’s Fund blog), or simply lack of funding. The NHS needs TLC, and a mature look at spending. But clapping doesn’t pay. So why do it?

Is clapping a means or an end?

It is hard to quantify the effects of our ritual. Is there an outcome we hope for? Obviously, we hope that the various doctors, nurses, care and essential workers living in our community hear our claps, feel enlivened, and return to work the next day (or night) with a renewed sense of valour, of self-worth. Something like, I don’t know—‘gosh, isn’t it good to be doing the right thing’.

But the reality is that when the bell chimes, and the swinging doors close behind her, our claps do nothing to protect our neighbourhood doc. Other NHS staff question it for different reasons. One feels ‘like a fraud’ for being idolised while twiddling his thumbs in eerily quiet A&E waiting room. At the same time, the Sun devotes its entire front page to instructing its readers to “applaud NHS heroes”. We are falling into a clap trap.

Policy is hardier than silence

It is easy to break the quiet of the high street. Smiles abound and everyone feels cushy. We have done our bit.

At every clang of spoon to saucepan, I am reminded of the methods Occupy protestors used to communicate across crowds. The speaker’s voice would be echoed by a dozen of her neighbours, amplifying the message and rendering it discernible to a group, say, 40 metres away. That group would, in turn, repeat the message. In this way, collectives of thousands could enter into a cooperative analogue messaging service. There were revelations. Voices rang out: we can do this!

But in the wake of Occupy, little changed. The movement(s) excited the imaginations of the Left, but failed to enact political change. The various protest groups were not equipped with the tools required to change policy—people in office. The danger we face is that the warmness that results from taking part in a ritual activity will put real change on a back-burner. Rate of social change is decelerated when the society sees no need for it.

But Clapping For Our Carers is just the beginning! Isn’t it?

Middle-class guilt, or simply ‘wealth guilt’, is a much-discussed phenomenon. In order to alleviate this guilt, the middle-class donate to charities. Charity shops thrive in middle-class towns. Such acts of apparent kindness provide relief, and allow those born with a silver (or copper, or gold) spoon to go on about their business.

People are also more likely to give to charity if they are being watched, for example. It is far easier to perform the rites and rituals of the caring, than to actually begin to care. In this vein, stories arise about incidents of public shaming—for not clapping!

So on the one hand we have clappers feeling warm and cushy about ‘doing something’, expressing their gratitude—in a way that causes them to sacrifice nothing. Those clappers absolve themselves of any guilt they might feel at having let those frontline workers fall to the lowest rungs of the socio-economic hierarchy. And finally, those who don’t clap are at risk of public shaming—of being outed. On top of this, there are reports of as many as 200,000 UK citizens reporting their neighbours for breaking lockdown rules.

The stakes may be low, and the incidents petty. But in principle, does this not smack of something sinister?


Naturally, the suspicion arises that this strange and futile weekly ritual is yet another distraction piece. Naomi Klein, among others, has written extensively on the penchant of neoliberal governments for using national emergencies as smokescreens. We, the populace, are shocked. As a result, we rally together, stoked into flames of empathy. Then, under the cover of darkness, distracted by waving our hands, ill minds pull strings. Be aware of who is playing yours.


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