And so, at 17:00, it started. In hospitals across the country, where wards are mercifully more normal now; in Anfield, where the champions of English football have hailed an even greater power than they; among the Black Lives Matters protesters, who momentarily found their cause defeated by another; and, of course, on the main roads and on the gates, subways, suburban and rural – the applause broke out.
Among the most cordial who joined the last Clap for Carers was the Prime Minister, or the patient Johnson as he was for those hours when he was suspended between life and death. Annemarie Plas, a Dutch yoga teacher who will remain famous forever as the woman who started the weekly applause, was there next to him. His campaign has gone far. In Wales, the ovation echoed through Tredegar, the hometown of Nye Bevan. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has joined. Prince Charles sent his tribute video.
In Cambridge, as if to underline the importance of the struggle that frontline workers have just endured, a Spitfire flew over the city, tilting its wings in admiration for those who work in the corridors and departments of the NHS. “This,” he seemed to say, “was your best time.”
But then the acclamation ended, and with it came the end of that paradoxical demonstration of appreciation for our health professionals, both spontaneous and highly organized.
It was a ritual that had miraculously managed to banish the reasonable British suspicion of the feeling managed by the internship and to drag us all out the front door, all the better to recognize not only those who worked hard in distant nursing homes and departments of Covid, but also, with caution, those neighbors standing right next to us on their curves.
What exceptional circumstances were in early March. A strict blockade had just been imposed, which forced us all to our home, except for a single daily excursion. But there was no greater reminder of the terrible oddity of that period than those weekly eruptions of applause when, with varying degrees of self-awareness, we applauded or whistled, or banged on the bottom of a saucepan, before retreating back inside, barring the door. against the spread of contagion.
And every week that passed, the nods to the neighbors became “Hallos” and then, perhaps, muttered questions after the well-being and finally smiles of ease and familiarity. The artificial ceremony, with the force of repetition, became natural. And so the organization really led to spontaneity.
Just because it peaks – just like Covid cases did – and the process has moved slightly backwards. The institution on Thursday evening actually began to lose its universality, its simplicity, its ease, when it became clear that Covid would not kill us all, that the nation would overcome.
Not that we weren’t grateful to all those doctors, nurses and other key workers. Because for God we certainly were. Not that political gestures had aroused a genuine emotion everywhere, although in some places it certainly did.
Rather, the applause for the assistants has lost some luster because it no longer seemed right for a country that was beginning to dream of the future, whose people were beginning to think of getting out of their confinement, of leaving those doors again and claim some of the ordinary, rather than greeting the extraordinary.
They are the first realizations of that dream now that they are the greatest possible recognition of the efforts of the NHS – the tiny banal blooms that have recently been possible, from a pint with friends to a diary date for grandparents and grandchildren.
There is much more to do. Much later in the development process and much more pain to absorb, certainly cheap and possibly medical. But now we are taking the measure of Covid-19. When we applauded fervently for the assistants, it was because he was so unknown. Not only the patients, but those who were treating them, were entering the abyss, guinea pigs in a new and dangerous world, and we applauded them as we applaud the astronauts, shooting in the dark: “What courage”, we thought. “Rather than them.”
When the next wave comes, general applause will no longer be the right answer. It almost never is, disguising mistakes, discouraging the necessary criticisms, losing incompetence with heroism. But the fact that it seemed so right for so long, reveals how seismic the block months have been.
Yet, for the moment, it is now mercifully behind us. And that’s why so many may have chosen to spend 5pm yesterday in the afternoon sun, in the pub, rather on the doorstep. Even raising a glass was always an act of tribute. Indeed, we must hope that there is no need to applaud, between the same doubt, fear and danger, never again.