James Kirkup

Helen Whately is right about student nurses

Helen Whately is right about student nurses
Helen Whately
Text settings

Helen Whately, the care minister, is being tarred and feathered. She wrote a letter to an MP about student nurses, saying they are ‘supernumerary and not deemed to be providing a service’.

The outpouring of fury online and, sadly, from some traditional media outlets provides an object lesson in all that’s wrong with the way Britain debates politics and government in the era of Twitter.

Whately’s comments should not be ‘controversial’ or even newsworthy, because she said nothing wrong.

Student nurses are indeed ‘supernumerary’, which means that they are not counted towards the total of nursing staff in the NHS. This is not just sensible, it’s something recognised and demanded by bodies such as the Royal College of Nursing (RCN).

The RCN says that keeping student nurses out of the numbers for NHS nurses is about patient safety: it stops ministers using students as substitutes for fully-qualified staff. It also protects student nurses’ learning time, by preventing managers from deploying them to wards when they should be studying.

It follows from this that the activities carried out by student nurses cannot be recognised as work or a ‘service’ for the NHS in the same way as the work of qualified nurses is.

So Whately wasn’t just noting a long-established and perfectly sensible NHS workforce policy, she was describing a policy that is actively defended by nursing groups as good for patients and good for nurses.

But of course, none of that matters, because this is the Age of Stupid. Why bother to spend time thinking about something when you can just jump straight to dumb outrage? Given the choice between a better understanding of the world in a few minutes’ time or righteous anger now, too many of us choose the immediately gratifying dopamine hit of anger.

Twitter, as the BBC’s Amol Rajan has noted, industrialises the worst aspects of human behaviour, handing out dopamine like sugar to toddlers, and rewarding the biggest pushers. The dumb outrage at Whately’s letter was turbocharged by Piers Morgan, the quintessential journalist of the Twitter age.

Add in the role of the NHS and you have the perfect story of our times. Even before the pandemic, the national conversation about the health service was shallow and adulatory, especially on workforce issues. That veneration, which chills reasoned criticism and prevents the NHS being as good as it could be, is now a settled fact of politics for the next decade: doctors and nurses are right and good, and anyone who doesn’t accept that is axiomatically wrong and probably evil.

But Helen Whately wasn’t wrong and she isn’t evil. Saying so is about defending things far more important than her.