The pandemic politics behind the Clap for Captain Tom

Written by Robert MacFarlane

Cast your mind back to March 26th: the first Clap for Carers has taken place and millions across the country are showing support for NHS and key workers. It is a weekly display of national unity in the face of the pandemic, designed to show gratitude towards the people that are working to save lives. However, as the weeks go on more and more people are becoming sceptical of the motivations behind the clap.

A survey by YouGov on May 29th 2020 revealed that one in three thought Clap for Carers was becoming politicised, and a further 11% thought it had always been politically motivated. Even the woman behind the clap, Anne-marie Plas, voiced her concern, saying to The Guardian “I think it is good to stop it at its peak without getting too political”. 

A third national lockdown announced on January 6th brought a revival of the event in the form of ‘Clap for Heroes’, as it was felt the spirits of the nation needed lifting. Many of the same criticisms of the Clap for Carers resurfaced and even nurses voiced their displeasure, with many saying they would rather the public adhere to lockdown restrictions.

Needless to say, Clap for Heroes has been far less successful in capturing the nation than it’s progenitor. Most recently Boris Johnson led a clap for Captain Tom, who passed away due to Covid-19 on February 2nd. The World War II veteran obtained celebrity status by raising over £30m for the NHS during the first national lockdown.

While Clap for Carers was not intended to be used for political gain, it quickly came to attract a huge number of participants and media attention. It could be argued that the politicization of the clap for carers was inevitable after it took off to such a huge degree. It’s ability to connect with so many, coupled with a unifying message, made it an obvious choice for any politician to get behind. As such, it was not long before Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak were clapping outside Downing street to camera crews, and Matt Hancock took to social media to post a video clapping on a rooftop with colleagues.

The Clap for Carers can be seen as a successful political tool in relation to social identity theory. Behavioural scientist Dr Chris Cameron explains that Clap for Carers created a way for people to be part of a group, and due to his position as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson was able to place himself at the top of this group hierarchy. The clap was a way for communities to be brought together, all while the government could be seen as the ones leading the event.

Clap for Carers especially fit with the patriotic messages of the conservatives as it was an event of national unity in the face of adversity. Indeed, in the early stages of the pandemic Johnson channelled national unity by portraying the pandemic as an attack on “a land of liberty”. As such, the Clap for Carers became tantamount to cheering for the troops when they returned home. Except the reality was a lot of them did not.

Yes, the fight against coronavirus is a national one and could justly be called a war, but as with war, the reality of Covid is ugly. We look upon the world wars with rose tinted glasses, fighting for king and country etc, with the memory of the horror lost to the generations who fought those conflicts. On the other hand, the pandemic still assails us, and modern news and social media allows people a clear picture of the toll. Casualties are inevitable in war, but Johnson’s use of pandemic wartime rhetoric instead reminded people that these deaths were in fact avoidable. 

One of the main reasons for the lacklustre response to Clap for Heroes was therefore a change in context. At the start of 2021, nine months since the first UK lockdown, people and businesses have adapted to operate more efficiently during periods of lockdown. However, more nuanced issues such as mental health, lockdown fatigue and home-schooling have grown over time. This, coupled with the post-Christmas Covid wave and the UK’s passing of 100,000 deaths as a result, made the clap feel like an unjustified celebration.

The rebranding to Clap for Heroes also faced criticism, as nurses felt the word ‘heroes’ was inappropriate as it implied invincibility among key workers, while detracting from the main way everyday people can help fight the pandemic, inaction. Nevertheless, Clap for Heroes still fulfilled a political role in trying to keep morale high and promote public unity. 

The death of Captain Tom brought with it a period of national mourning, which culminated in a televised clap led by the PM. However, it was also an event that undoubtedly fits snugly within the political timeline. As both a World War two veteran and a prominent figure in the first national lockdown, Captain Tom has become a martyr in the political war against the pandemic.

Captain Tom was worthy of applause of course but when it came to the government, people remembered that Captain Tom’s charitable funding for the NHS, much like the number of UK Covid deaths, ultimately should not have happened. As a clap that was this time announced by the government themselves, it smacked of being disingenuous when the government are also the ones responsible for the handling of the pandemic.

A cynical approach might be to say that ongoing clap-for-heroes-esque events are designed to distract from the grim facts and figures that continue to emerge in the news. Any politician would have recognised the opportunity an event like Clap for Carers presented at a time of crisis, the difference is now people are focused on how to defeat the pandemic, as opposed to fighting it. In short, they are tired of clapping.


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