Leona O'Neill: Why we need to keep defending the NHS for the sake of our families

With the final 'clap for carers' happening on Thursday, Leona O'Neill explains why everyone must continue to show their support for the NHS in other ways, especially by demanding that it is treated with more respect by our politicians – because everyone's family needs the support of our health system

Clapping only goes so far, especially when you're leading a government that's done deep damage to the NHS

THERE'S no doubt we are all in awe of our healthcare workers for the way they have handled the coronavirus crisis on the frontline. These heroes went to work every day to face down a new and deadly virus not knowing if they would become infected themselves, watching their colleagues get sick while fighting to save the lives of those in the cruel grip of this disease.

The public, locked away safely in their houses, were able to show their appreciation by coming out and clapping on their doorsteps every Thursday night in a 'clap for carers' campaign. And the ritual worked well. Our NHS workers took comfort in the fact that the public were standing with them and neighbours were able to connect at a distance from their doorsteps during isolation.

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I came down with a bad viral bug just before lockdown. I don't know what it was, but I couldn't get out of bed for three weeks. I remember lying there hearing my neighbours clapping from their doorsteps. It was beautiful, emotional and uplifting. When I was able to get out of bed again, I joined them for a few weeks.

I will be eternally grateful to the NHS for looking after me and my family and, in recent months in particular, how they have looked after my mother through her cancer treatment. And that is why I think we need to move on from this heartfelt gesture by the public.

NHS workers deserve to have us all behind them, calling for equal pay, fair conditions and a health service that is properly and adequately funded by the government. We need to harness the energy we put into the weekly clap and channel it into putting pressure on the government to inject funds back into a NHS that has been stripped down over the years to a point where it is in critical condition.

I have to admit, watching politicians come out and clap for an NHS which their own government has stripped of funds and left on its knees made my blood boil. During this crisis our health workers in inadequate PPE were fighting fires with plastic aprons and flimsy masks. Just weeks before the crisis they were out on picket lines in freezing January mornings striking for equal pay.

Nurses at Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital on strike for fair pay last year. Picture by Hugh Russell

We need to do more than clap on our doorsteps for our health workers. It's just not enough.

We need to do something for my family, your family and every family across Northern Ireland and Britain. We will all need the NHS at certain points in our lives, some more than most. We need it to be in the best possible position and its staff looked after and appreciated in order to be able to look after us well.

Ten weeks on, the originator of the weekly clap has said that this Thursday's ritual should be the last and that the event has 'become politicised'. Dutch-born Annemarie Plas said it was time to stop while it was at its peak to have the most impact.

"Without getting too political, I share some of the opinions that some people have about it becoming politicised," she said.

"I think the narrative is starting to change and I don't want the clap to be negative."

Instead of just stopping, we the public need to change tactics. Clapping on the doorstep might well make us feel we are doing something worthwhile, but closing our doors and doing nothing with that heartfelt goodwill and support is a waste of energy.

We need to get behind our health workers now. They are emerging from the most physically and emotionally trying of times. They need us not to forget their courage and resilience. They need us to stand up and call for our NHS workers to be paid well and treated fairly.

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