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It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle: a Christian challenge to the NHS ‘COVID pay rise’

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I was rather challenged by Georgie Coster’s heartfelt blog in August on the lack of a pay rise for nurses and other NHS staff in the recent, ‘post COVID’ pay awards.

I am one of those ‘hard-working’ Consultants who deserved (according to the BMA and several Royal Colleges at least) this pay rise from the Government.

However, I am deeply uncomfortable in accepting this, and I pray those of you who are Christian senior doctors are too.

Although there have been many ‘NHS heroes laying down their lives for the nation against COVID-19’, I have not been one of them. I, like many specialist consultant surgeons, was too far removed from acute medicine to actually remember which end of a stethoscope to place against a patient’s chest to be of any real use. Though clearly, some did find a way to be useful (eg by becoming ‘turners’), I and many like me were sent home on an effective furlough with no elective surgery to do, and only cancer and emergency work continuing. So, I diligently set about tending my garden, whilst being paid my full salary.

Surgeons were just one category of specialist physicians and non-cancer/emergency services that were suspended across the UK. And not only Consultants but many specialty juniors were placed on ‘on-call only’ rotas. Again, sent home and only allowed in the building when on-call or needed to staff the drastically reduced clinical activity.

Understandably, this was to make the NHS ready for the expected tsunami of cases, but outside of the southeast, that never really happened. Most of those extra ITU beds and Nightingale hospitals never got used. I do thank our God that that was the case, but it didn’t stop me from feeling a fraud as my neighbours clapped enthusiastically for me – as their local NHS hero.

Instead, those real heroes were others.

My adult ward was converted into a ‘COVID Ward’. My nurses stayed at their posts and continued delivering the wonderful care that I am honoured to know them for, to a whole different set of patients. Unlike most post-surgical cases, these patients needed much more intensive input, and my nurses, more often than usual, had to fight to keep them alive – sometimes in vain. Some too caught the disease themselves. Thankfully, none of my colleagues died, but we all know that a good few, across the NHS, literally gave their lives in this fight.

Meanwhile, I had the freedom to stay at home, only attending if I scheduled an urgent or cancer case, whilst my theatre staff were in every day, available to mop up the reduced emergency load, or mop the theatres more spotless than ever.

Nurses, cleaners, care workers, Allied Health Professionals and of course many Junior Doctors stepped into the breach and were redeployed across the NHS, directly into A&E, or onto the COVID wards. They were younger, more ‘retrainable’, and perhaps ‘more biddable and more expendable’ than we, highly trained Consultants.

As Georgie quite rightly pointed out, these were the real heroes. But due to the alleged vagaries of the system, they wait their turn to be recognised.

Further adding to my discomfort, the BMA and Royal Colleges complained about the ‘insufficiency’ of this pay rise. Consultants are already in the top two per cent of earners – by the BMA’s own admission – and perhaps with all our previous years of training and service that is appropriate. But to complain so much now clearly shows the ‘sense of entitlement’ that Georgie highlights. This does not reflect well on our profession, and as Christian doctors, we should particularly stand against such self-serving attitudes.

It has also gone unnoticed that whilst so many of us hospital doctors have found ourselves working less – and some very much less – than our normal contracted hours, we have continued to be paid our full NHS salary, as well as additional PAs and Clinical Excellence Awards. Furthermore, as the Daily Mail has recently suggested, the dichotomy also exists in Primary Care, with many services not being provided, despite being still funded.

And all this whilst many in our nation were furloughed and paid just 80% of their regular wage (to a maximum of £2,500 per month). Many of these now face redundancy in the coming weeks.

Moving forward – in the era of socially distanced clinics and COVID-secure operating – we will all need to work harder and longer for the NHS to catch up and to stay on top of demand. In the hospital, this can only rationally mean an increase in out of hours – so-called ‘Waiting List initiative’ – clinics and operating lists. Will it be honourable, even if it is wholly legal, for those of us that have already been paid in full for not doing this work, to expect, nay demand, to not only be paid but receive out-of-hours rates at two or three times our regular rate. Especially when our supporting staff will not be earning, and indeed have never earned, the same differential.

In my discussions with other doctors, sadly even some Christians, the attitude is unashamedly that since we have not been ‘properly’ remunerated for our service for years, why should we not get some of it back now?

Should we not, as Christian medics, called by our Lord to serve, have a different perspective?

Micah 6:8: ‘to act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God’.

I believe the just approach is to honour and celebrate those who made the real sacrifices against COVID and to humbly admit if we did not.

Otherwise, we should fear God’s next words in verses 10-16: which include a condemnation of ‘ill-gotten treasures’.

Of interest may be the fact that at least some businesses have voluntarily returned furlough payments, recognising that they had not needed them after all. So, are we going to keep the significant financial windfall that so many of us have reaped from the crisis? Are we going to expect or demand even more?

Need I remind us that our Lord said, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God’ (Matthew 19:6)?

So at the very least, can I urge you who are senior doctors, rather than putting your windfall towards a new kitchen or an exotic holiday when this is all over, consider how you can receive it with gratitude and give it back to the Lord?

But even more, I ask you to step forward with me and exhort those of us in our profession who did not make those sacrifices, to make one now. Accept the pay deal graciously, being mindful of the significant unearned rewards we have received, and display a more honourable (nay moral) attitude as we seek to ‘restart’ and restore our beloved National Health Service.

[Anonymous]

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