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Immigrants and the NHS: hidden hands, hidden history

Immigrants and the NHS: hidden hands, hidden history

Daniel Nelson

 Migrant Voice - Immigrants and the NHS: hidden hands, hidden history

In the latest of our occasional commentaries on the coverage of migration in the media, Daniel Nelson looks at BBC One's new programme Our NHS: A Hidden History.

The NHS is a system that needs migrants but didn’t always want them.

That is one of historian and commentator David Olusoga’s opening shots in his BBC One programme, Our NHS: A Hidden History.

“From the very start,” he says, “the NHS was only able to deliver on its promises by drawing into its ranks nurses, doctors, auxiliaries from other countries…

“… and what that means is that the history of our most beloved national institution is intimately connected with another history: that of the most divisive political issue of the last 70 years - immigration.”

Olusoga’s quiet, dignified, truth-telling, historically fascinating, hour-long programme introduces us to immigrants who not only kept the NHS alive but showed how some of the children and grandchildren of those migrants are still maintaining the system in the throes of its current threat: Covid-19.

When Yvette Phillips was told she needed a kidney transplant she contacted the surgeon, Sri Lanka-born Ossie Fernando, who had carried out her first life-changing transplant three decades earlier.  By then he had retired - so she insisted his son, Bimbi, did the job.

“This story of Yvette, Ossie and Bimbi,” says Olusoga,  “contains a transplant of a very different sort: the migration of one family from Sri Lanka to Britain 60 years ago, and that migrant family, the Fernandos, has been contributing to the health and well-being of this nation ever since.”

Their story is far from unique. Olusoga presents others, such as the Parsee from Bombay who arrived in 1926. His sons took over the practice and now the grandchildren are GPs in London, and in turn one of their daughters is about to become a doctor – the fourth generation. (“Without the contribution of Asian doctors [the NHS] would never have got off the ground.”)

Nurses, too, kept the institution alive, initially from Ireland and then from anywhere they could be recruited: Dr Neil Singh (three generations in healthcare) recalls how the National Health Service was sometimes nicknamed the Commonwealth Health Service.

Then there’s the third tier of NHS props: the people who clean, cook and carry - “without them the NHS would grind to a halt.”

The fortunes of the people who form the backbone of this country, then and now, are varied. Some were tricked into the harshest jobs by prospectuses that were economical with the truth; some careers were thwarted by discrimination; a few whistle-blowers changed the landscape by winning discrimination cases at industrial tribunals; many faced racism and prejudice: one doctor recalls his surgery door being splattered with faeces - “You just did your job and got on with it and over the years it got better.”

Some fought their way through the thicket of obstacles to become professors, heads of department, high-level administrators. But the battle is not over. This year the General Medical Council acknowledged that ethnic minority doctors were twice as likely to be referred to a disciplinary hearing.

It all makes a gripping human story: “The NHS by a long margin is the most diverse of all British institutions”, with 13 per cent of its 1.2 million staff coming from overseas.

Implicit in the programme, though the understated Olusoga doesn’t spell it out, is that the vast majority of this under-appreciated migrant workforce are the best of us. Their patience, tolerance, forbearance and humanity in the face of prejudice and insult (I personally have witnessed a fellow very ill patient screaming at a Black nurse to keep her dirty hands off him) is nothing short of amazing.

The programme is a small but vital contribution to the atonement and appreciation we should all feel.

* Our NHS: A Hidden History, BBC One

Image credit: BBC / Uplands TV / Harriet Thomas

Previous articles from this series:

Lenny Henry’s Commonwealth Kid
Collateral: TV crime drama takes on migration
Kate and Koji 

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