Clap for Heroes: a well-intentioned gesture best left in the past?
Illustration by Kleo F Vigh

Cast your minds back to the first lockdown last year. There was great uncertainty, and nobody knew how deadly COVID-19 would be or how long the outbreak would last. Every Thursday starting from the 26th March, we stood at our doors and clapped for NHS staff and care home workers to show our appreciation, gratitude and respect as we saw how they risked their lives to save others. 

Clap for Carers lasted for ten weeks. Look forward to the present day and we find ourselves in another national lockdown with the Clap for Carers re-starting but under a new name. 

The initiator of Clap for Carers was Annemarie Plas, a Dutch national living in South London. At first she was joined by friends and family, but through spread of word via social media, the whole nation soon joined in on the applause, including celebrities, members of Parliament and even the Prime Minister.

On 5th January, Ms Plas announced the return of the clap to be starting from 8pm on 7th January to “lift the spirit of us all” during this third lockdown. Despite the huge participation and success of the Clap for Carers during the first national lockdown, the news of a second applause did not receive the same response.

Instead, Ms Plas found herself releasing a statement on 7th January saying that she felt she had “no choice but to step back from the event after facing personal abuse and threats on social media”. Far from the response of the first clap.

Despite the good intentions of Ms Plas to show appreciation and respect to those in the health and social care industry, the second applause is not gaining the same support. But why?

It seems the national atmosphere has changed.

People are no longer mystified by coronavirus, rather they know the consequences and how deadly it is. They have seen the continuous mishandling and misjudgements of the Government which has led to more deaths and they have seen the impact of an underfunded and undervalued NHS.

Those working in the NHS took to Twitter to voice their views on Clap for Heroes. For example, Rachel Clarke, a palliative care doctor, tweeted:

The Nursing Times reached out to nurses on social media to gauge their views on Clap for Heroes. They found that “nearly all of those who responded said they did not support the event coming back”.

The responses found that some nurses felt the term ‘heroes’ was wrong because they had not signed up to be ‘heroes’ when working hard to get into their profession and that they are not invincible. Others felt that the clap had no real sentiment or was hypocritical as some members of the public would carry on breaking Covid-19 guidelines regardless.

In an article in The Guardian, Christina Pagel, director of UCL’s Clinical Operational Research Unit, speaks of the hardships the NHS is facing currently, explaining why the sentiment towards Clap for Heroes has been hugely negative. 

She states how “more and more ambulance and hospital staff are off sick from Covid and physical or mental burnout” which is “putting a further strain on the system”, and how “ambulances have had to queue for hours outside hospitals, waiting for a bed to become available”.

Pagel declares that the “blame” of this catastrophe lies “with 10 years of NHS underfunding, with a government that has consistently delayed action against scientific advice, and with an aggressively infectious virus.”

Nobody wants to see the performative act of Parliament members clapping for the NHS once again while care workers continue to be underpaid, the NHS continues to be underfunded and both remain fighting to keep afloat due to the errors of government.

On 7th January, after taking part in the clap, Keir Starmer tweeted:

The strong criticism of Clap for Heroes is not a surprise. Not only because of the current atmosphere and events, but also because the Clap for Carers was not without criticism the first time around.  

Those who didn’t clap were thought to be not appreciative of key workers. People were clapping then breaking the rules. People felt forced to stand out in front of their neighbours to clap for fear of what it might look like otherwise. The nation was clapping but these sectors continued to be underrepresented and underfunded.

The applause for our key workers had good intentions and it definitely lifted spirits during the weeks of the first lockdown. But now it is time for us to be putting pressure on the government to take real action to help the NHS and care home industries by holding them accountable for their errors. We must all come together by following guidelines to ensure the safety of those risking their lives every day.

Clap for Heroes is starting at a time when the virus is rife in our communities, our key industries are struggling, and the government is facing huge criticism. People are more desperate than ever for that light at the end of the tunnel.

We all hugely admire, respect and appreciate our NHS staff and care workers, but perhaps the clap is better left in the past.