Clapping for the NHS


I’ve been trying to work out what the ‘Clapping for the NHS’ phenomenon tells us about where we find ourselves at this time of pandemic crisis. Some of it may be seem obvious but I sense that there is more to this than meets the eye. This is probably the socio-psychologist in me taking its daily exercise, so humour me.

Firstly and importantly it is a sign of massive appreciation and admiration for the staff who are caring in exceptional circumstances, putting themselves at great risk in the process. The comedian Russell Howard said in a trailer for his latest show that he is living apart from his wife, who is a doctor and is in their home with colleagues isolating as they continue to work thus protecting others from contagion. Personal sacrifices are legion. These key workers are saving lives, nursing the sick and caring for the dying with dignity. It is impressive by any standards and deserves recognition. Despite the great strains they are under their professionalism and dedication is rightly receiving high praise. 

Secondly I think it is a sign of how much the NHS matters to the people of this nation. Politicians mess with this at their peril. Remember next time there is a budget that it needs funding and we all rely on it, indeed we have a Prime Minister who owes his life to it. We’ll have that £350m now please.

Some of those joining in on streets with neighbours have spoken of the social connectedness it brings and they stand in solidarity briefly breaking cover and alleviating isolation. Just a few weeks in and the reduced, even lost, social contact is difficult to bear. We are social creatures and notice it acutely when it is taken away. This is an act of defiance: we will not be beaten by this and will not be cut off by it. The human spirit will find ways of breaking free to link up and show we are alive.

Fourthly I think this is a scary moment, the stuff of nightmares and horror films. There is a lot of anxiety around and making a noise is what the frightened child inside us does when it wants to scare away a monster. Deep down it is a primal response to something which is beyond our control. Inactivity in such circumstances enhances the feeling of powerlessness and so projects like this give the appearance of taking back a bit of control. We can’t change the virus but we can lift the mood and show our appreciation. It takes quite a prepared mind to stare this in the face and not blink.

In a more superstitious religious age there would have been an appeal to God or the gods to rescue and turn away the wrath visited on us. We can take away the superstitious faith, which in itself may be questionable as to whether it really has been abandoned, but the urge to bargain remains. Harvey Cox has written in ‘The market as God’ (Harvard 2016) about how the market has been deified, so we’re not as ‘irreligious’ or free from this as we might think. There is something in the human psyche that wants to place trust in a force we believe can bring good fortune rather than calamity. The NHS is such a totem. This makes the clapping also a cry of anxiety, for without a focus for faith there is nowhere else to place our hope and trust. And who can say they aren’t anxious at the moment? Those with a deep religious faith also know that it is more likely to be the skill of medical staff that will save them in this crisis because God gives the skill and inspires the compassion. As Mother Theresa used to pray, Christ has no hands but ours, or in this case yours.

Not joining in with the clapping on your doorstep on Thursdays at 8.00pm doesn’t mean that you care any less for the NHS or any other key workers. And as one health worker told me those who clap don’t necessarily remember the next day when those same workers are given priority at the supermarket and they have dirty looks shot at them. Will we remember when this is over that many careworkers and NHS workers come from overseas? Clapping must not deflect from confronting racism or the underfunding which leads to challenges being faced by the system. The NHS has been at full capacity and under significant strain before this pandemic struck for all the politicians lining up to post videos of themselves clapping.

There is one more deflection and it is facing our own mortality. Even those of us with long term conditions tend to concentrate on how we live with it rather than its reminder of mortal limitations. One day we all have to face our mortal nature, remembering that the bell tolls for all of us, but not just yet please! We clap for life.

In a crisis we revert to type. Activists will get active and go into overdrive. The more reflective will wonder and ponder and pause, possibly even go silent and process internally. It’s how we handle the challenge. Which we want to do will tell us more about ourselves than it will about how much we care. We know we need both responses. Things need to happen and in a crisis, as Gordon Brown pointed out in The Guardian this week, we need to act quickly, but there needs to be space for reflection too.

So we clap to show appreciation and admiration, to scare monsters and alleviate powerlessness, to show that this is where we place our trust and to deflect what we don’t want to face including mortality. It is one response but we also need the resilience to stare the monster in the face and look beyond it to a hope that transcends and can therefore hold us more securely.

The sacrificial and self-giving love, displayed by the key workers, is resonant with the heart of the Christian narrative. It is Christlike in its giving and loving, in its sacrifice, and a number have paid the ultimate price in contracting and dying from Covid-19. As this crisis displays passion and grief, so it also shows the signs of new life and hope. Friends and strangers gather to celebrate, to connect across the distancing in common cause of life. There are values and commitment which transcend and stand above other concerns. It is a tale of Easter hope and that shines in the darkness and that darkness is not able to overcome it.  


About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough and Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral in the Church of England Diocese of Peterborough. He served as Rural Dean of Peterborough for 5 years. Prior to moving to Peterborough, Ian was in Leeds for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian was born and grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon and is a former head chorister at Shakespeare's Church - Holy Trinity. He studied in Canterbury, Lincoln Theological College and has a Master of Divinity degree from Nottingham University. He is married with two sons. Publications include three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His most recent book, 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus', was published by Sacristy Press in 2017. There is a hymn based on this 'Christ the Saviour'. He has been writing online since the mid 1990s. Ian is a keen photographer and these frequently appear in his posts and on social media.
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