Changing perceptions: a look back on how Covid-19 has raised the profile of the NHS and social care and a reflection on what more must be done

Published by Rhys Taylor-Brown on January 27th 2021, 11:05am

In the latter part of 2019, The World Health Organization planned to raise the profile of the nursing profession worldwide and increase the global workforce of nurses in honour of Florence Nightingale’s 200th anniversary, making 2020 the Year of the Nurse and the Midwife. In December of that year, Covid-19 first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan, before spreading to the rest of the world over the course of the following year.

The crisis immediately alerted health leaders, governments and the general public worldwide. In the UK, the NHS response was to realign its services and redirect staff to tackle the anticipated swathes of acutely ill Covid patients. Nurses had to be redeployed or brought into the NHS workforce afresh and trained rapidly to meet the demand.

Indeed, 2020 would become the Year of the Nurse. Third-year student nurses were being fast-tracked into the healthcare workforce and asked to volunteer with extended practice hours and a further 10,000 former nurses were brought back into the health profession.

As the health and social care sector battled away on the frontline, the NHS and care bodies received an incredible amount of goodwill and positive press from the public. As well as a host of commercial privileges such as priority shopping hours and discounts, health workers were also recognised by the weekly Clap for Carers which ran for a short period of time in the UK.

Data provided by UCAS which was accurate as of September 2020 revealed that there was a 15 per cent increase in applications to nursing undergraduate courses compared to 2019 in the UK, with institutions in England alone reporting an increase of 23 per cent.

The media was also providing first-hand accounts from nurses in various settings, including nursing and residential homes as well as intensive care wards, showing the public the realities of Covid-19 for the industry and presenting healthcare staff as bastions of compassion, professionalism and specialist knowledge.

This up-close perspective of what went on inside hospital and care facilities during times of pressure had seldom been seen before and captured the attention of the public. It also differed enormously from previously negative media portrayals of nurses and care staff, which had reinforced a number of negative stereotypes, including that they were subordinate to fully qualified doctors.

While the number of qualified nurses is on the up, maintaining this new positive standing of the vocation as a skilled profession and building on the reputation that has been so enhanced throughout the health crisis will become a priority for the government and reforms in the social care sector will still be required. Yet, the support of the public and the changed perceptions of healthcare workers will prove hugely influential in helping make this a reality.

Kyrsty Fairchild, managing director of Dorset-based registered care company Fairhope, is one figurehead who has found herself on the frontline of the crisis. Speaking before the pandemic hit in 2019, she warned back then about the importance of care workers such as nurses in the health and social care system, and how perceptions of them and the industry needed to improve to guarantee a healthy sector workforce in future.

Fairchild said: “Without care workers playing their important role in the health and care system, our societies would almost certainly collapse. As such, greater importance needs to be attached to the role of a care worker, and it should be integrated as part of the medical profession in addition to being recognised as art of an individual’s support team.

“We would like to see a lot more positive press about the role, which we believe would make the profession more attractive to the younger generation.”

While the media coverage of the profession has significantly improved since then as a result of the crisis in fulfilment of one of her hopes, Fairchild believes that there is still much to be done to create clearer pathways to progression for those in the industry, and more action from the government to incentivise youngsters to pursue careers in the sector.

“There also needs to be a clear career pathway for those who wish to go on to higher-paid and senior positions. We would also like to see government-backed advertising and enhanced career opportunities for 16-year-olds at school. This could perhaps include a pilot scheme, working alongside the government, whereby companies such as ourselves gave talks to children in our local schools not just about apprenticeship schemes, but about job satisfaction, working flexibility and career options. We could offer work experience to coincide with pupils obtaining their healthcare certificate. Government schemes could also offer financial assistance towards driving lessons and taking the driving test. The incentives structure in this industry needs to change radically.

“As a business working on the ground, we cannot control what happens in politics. What we can control, however, is our practices and our commitments – which are to provide the highest-quality care and to go the extra mile for those who need it. By remaining true to this ethos, we will have fulfilled our duty as carers – which, as society ages further, will only become more and more important as time goes on. All we ask in the meantime is that those working in the sector receive the appreciation they deserve.”

Although the Year of the Nurse may have brought with it the appreciation and recognition that the sector has so desperately craved, it has also shone the spotlight on the vast levels of improvement required to help the health and social care sector going forward. One step forward must not be followed by two steps backward. 

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Authored By

Rhys Taylor-Brown
Junior Editor
January 27th 2021, 11:05am

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