I love the idea of coming together and celebrating something as much as the next person. What could possibly give you the warm and fuzzies like seeing your friends, your family, and arguably, the star of the show—a 99 year-old war veteran named Captain Tom—club together to raise money for a national cause? What could be a more genuine, heartfelt appeal to the damaged British psyche? The ‘Run for Heroes’ campaign certainly appears to be undeniable proof of how our beloved country is still able to exercise such unity in this post-Brexit era which has so deeply divided us, both politically and ideologically.
“It does not sit easily with me that the public seem to have been guilted into raising money for organisations who are meant to be funded by the government and public taxes in the first place, which most of us contribute to over the trajectory of our working lives.”
However, I recently saw a post warning against donating to the campaign through Virgin Money Giving, and regretfully found myself wondering about any small print I may have missed when I had personally donated. I ended up falling down an internet wormhole on my quest to determine whether it may be true that a percentage of the cash donated is ending up in Richard Branson’s silk-lined pocket—and suddenly, it struck me. I remembered how Branson had successfully and privately settled (but allegedly never profited from) a £2m damages claim against the health service several years ago, when the Surrey NHS trust chose not to award Virgin Care a contract worth £82m. For me, the issue had instantaneously grown legs, taking on an element deeply imbued with larger and more difficult questions than I had originally anticipated.
Perhaps we should ask of Branson, who is so wealthy that he actually owns an island, why he has privatised numerous NHS contracts over the years considering he apparently makes no money out of the venture, and pays no corporate tax in the UK. Branson’s Virgin Care has been accused of playing a parasitic role in the National Health Service by ‘fragmenting services […] poaching NHS-trained staff and undermining nearby NHS trusts’ in the past.
While the same problem is not necessarily true of Virgin Money Giving (who state on their website that the 2% platform and 2.5% payment processing fees they take is purely administrative and goes solely towards raising money for charitable causes), it does not sit easily with me that the public seem to have been guilted into raising money for organisations who are meant to be funded by the government and public taxes in the first place, which most of us contribute to over the trajectory of our working lives.
It is unfortunately true that when Branson obtained £2m in his private settlement against the Surrey trust, he deprived the NHS of public money that could have otherwise been spent on non-privatised ventures.
In a similar vein, I guess it was misguided of myself to think that we had learnt a sincere and sobering lesson when it came to not deluging public money on big businesses without stricter regulation after the 2008 financial crisis. Yet Branson seemingly had the audacity to file a request for the government purse to bail out Virgin Atlantic for £500 million earlier this month, after asking his workforce to take an eight-week period of unpaid leave. In the wake of this saga, I think the question many of us would like to ask Sir Richard is, why he simply will not stick to selling broadband?
“Matt Hancock, clapping himself silly on the streets of Downing Street, may as well have tweeted ‘@NHS – thoughts and prayers are with your workers at this incredibly difficult time.’
The irony of this bizarrely tragic situation that we have found ourselves in is that the people who hold the power to change things are withholding it, and instead relying on the public to do the leg-work.”
I must admit, I donated to the ‘run 5, donate 5, nominate 5’ challenge out of guilt. I donated because I have seen the posts from my friends about themselves or their parents who work for the NHS, using plastic bags and bin liners as PPE. I donated because the fear of more healthcare and crisis worker deaths due to not having the necessary equipment is too unbearable to think of. So we donate. Collectively. We raise money, we clap. Oh boy, do we clap until our hands are sore—but I cannot help thinking how in an episode which has proven to us how desperately we rely on public sector services in a time of national crisis, surely our love for the NHS should be precisely anything other than apolitical?
Clapping is great for morale and I applaud the efforts of regular people giving back to healthcare workers, specifically people donating money through whatever means they have, irrespective of whether this is through Virgin or other mediums. However, it seems that when members of government preach support through partaking in these same gestures of goodwill, they are transformed into facile, empty symbols. Matt Hancock, clapping himself silly on the streets of Downing Street, may as well have tweeted ‘@NHS – thoughts and prayers are with your workers at this incredibly difficult time.’ The irony of this bizarrely tragic situation that we have found ourselves in is that the people who hold the power to change things are withholding it, and instead relying on the public to do the leg-work.
“It is impossible to depoliticise the way in which Covid-19 has disproportionately affected the most marginalised groups in society, as well as the working class.”
I would suggest that perhaps the most gut-wrenching irony in this episode of public fundraising for the NHS is that if big-business owners like Branson simply paid their appropriate income or corporate tax rates, and did not attempt to privatise every corner of the health service by making it into a pet profit machine, it would not be in the diabolical mess it currently is. There’s simply nothing like Tory hedge-fund MPs putting the onus on the good people of Britain to raise money for public sector organisations, when their billionaire banker mates (who directly profit from tax loops that the government seems to be rather slow to reform) could simply pay their due, like the rest of us. To think, there could have been a situation in which the NHS was proportionally more prepared for this crisis, and that a number of deaths could have been prevented entirely. It is simply a wonder.
In my view, it is impossible to depoliticise the way in which Covid-19 has disproportionately affected the most marginalised groups in society, as well as the working class. It has certainly made some of us rethink the way in which we treat immigrants and ethnic minorities who form a significant proportion of the workforce in the health service. However, these ideas have proved controversial and been largely avoided by journalists who are apparently attempting to tread the line between ethical investigative reporting and not causing panic in the public sphere.
“I would go as far as to say that it is outright neglect to be offered the chance to obtain PPE, only to refuse it, and then have the gall to accuse NHS workers of using it too quickly and uncaringly.”
It took for BBC’s Emily Maitlis to assert the (glaringly) obvious in one of last week’s episodes of Newsnight, as she described how ‘Those on the front line right now; bus drivers and shelf-stackers, nurses, care home workers, hospital staff and shopkeepers, are disproportionately the lower-paid members of our work force. […] They are more likely to catch the disease because they are more exposed.’ To summarise the revolutionary nature of this statement which tore through political circles on Twitter: asserting facts which other reporters have proved unable to challenge the government with is currently considered prime journalism, and some (Carole Cadwalladr is a great example) have actually come under fire for stating the blatantly political nature of the situation, having been accused of ‘politicising’ matters unduly.
The lack of nurses (who, a few months ago, were not considered to fulfill the criteria—or paygrade—to make the ‘skilled’ category of workers in the new immigration system), the deliberate privatisation of departments, contracts and hospitals, the way in which the government thought they could get away with deliberately choosing not to take part in the EU’s mass procurement of PPE without the public not catching wind of it—all of this amounts to precisely everything wrong with the way in which the government is handling the UK’s response to the pandemic.
I would go as far as to say that it is outright neglect to be offered the chance to obtain PPE, only to refuse it, and then have the gall to accuse NHS workers of using it too quickly and uncaringly. This is little Britain on steroids. Sue Hill, the Vice-President of the Royal College of Surgeons, recently said on the matter, ‘The thing that irritates me is cabinet ministers are standing up every day, addressing us as if we’re on a war footing and giving Churchillian quotes when they could be doing a few simple things like getting more bits of plastic and paper on to wards.’
“I ask, why do we continue to degrade healthcare and other key workers further than they already have been by suggesting we knight them, or even give them a Victoria Cross for bravery? […] They want change enacted through policy and legislation.”
Not only has this crisis illuminated the brutal conditions in which healthcare and key workers are operating, it has also brought to attention functional issues with regard to the welfare system. Take universal credit, for instance, or more specifically: ESA. Some would argue that it is more than enough to keep the ‘scroungers’ of the welfare state from leaching this country dry—until they came to understand that £57-73 a week, is in fact, practically impossible to live on when the average rent in the UK is £967p/m—outside of London. Suddenly, it seems, people are beginning to understand the scope of the damage caused by measures of austerity such as the freeze in pay-rises and the prevalence of zero-hours contracts.
So, I ask, why do we continue to degrade healthcare and other key workers further than they already have been by suggesting we knight them, or even give them a Victoria Cross for bravery? They do not want to be martyred, they simply do not want to die after giving birth two days previous, or cause the death of a loved one by exposing them to a virus in the name of £24,000-a-year paycheck. They do not want to die in vain, only to be honoured posthumously for valour. They want change enacted through policy and legislation.
We have to keep donating and doing all we can because the government simply refuses to do its part, and is using the public to compensate for the brutal conditions that austerity has caused in the public sector over the last decade. We must attempt to deliver the NHS better working conditions by pushing for decisive political action, whilst also clapping for them. Let’s show them a pledge of support that has positive tangible and lasting effects, as well as boosting their morale in the meantime.